Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What I read when I’m writing

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When Norman Mailer was writing The Naked and the Dead, the novel that made him famous at age twenty-five, he had a simple method for getting ready to work in the morning. Mailer says:

I had four books on my desk all the time I was writing: Anna Karenina, Of Time and the River, U.S.A., and Studs Lonigan. And whenever I wanted to get in the mood to write I’d read one of them. The atmosphere of The Naked and the Dead, the overspirit, is Tolstoyan; the rococo comes out of Dos Passos; the fundamental, slogging style from Farrell, and the occasional overrich descriptions from Wolfe.

And Mailer isn’t the only writer who kept a few favorite books on his desk. I imagine that many novelists have books that they keep at the ready for when they feel inspiration starting to flag. Sometimes it’s the same book over the course of an entire career; more often, I suspect, it varies from project to project. In my own case, I start each writing day by reading a few pages of a book that embodies the tone or voice I’m trying to achieve—as if something of the author’s talent will magically transmit itself—and return to it more than once as I continue to work. And rather to my surprise, when it comes to the novels I read while writing, I find myself sticking to a limited, strictly defined circle of books.

As I mentioned yesterday, I generally do a fast, rough draft of an entire chapter first thing in the morning, which usually takes a couple of hours. I’ve found from experience that the best books to read while I’m doing that messy initial version are rich, ripe, stylistically powerful books that encourage my own writing to be a little more florid—qualities that I pare down relentlessly in subsequent revisions, but which are often good to have in a first draft, where the point is to get as many ideas or images onto the page as possible. For me, the ideal author for this purpose is John Updike. Our styles as writers couldn’t be more different, but something in his ornate sentences just puts my brain to work. (It’s the Heist school of writing: I imagine a writer better than I am, then figure out what he would do.)

At the moment, then, I’m starting each morning with a few pages of Updike’s Terrorist. Later in the day, though, when I’m polishing what I’ve already written, I feel that it’s a mistake to read something so dense and mannered, because I run the risk of ending up with mere self-indulgence (a quality to which even Updike himself isn’t immune). For later drafts, it’s better to go with an author whose prose is a little more restrained, clean, and elegant—someone like Ian McEwan, say. While writing Kamera, I worked my way through Atonement, Amsterdam, Saturday, The Innocent, Black Dogs, and The Comfort of Strangers. Right now, since I’ve already read all the McEwan I own, I’m doing something similar with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which has the kind of spare, classical style that I’m hoping will restrain the worst of my impulses.

There’s a negative side to all this, too. While I’m writing, I avoid books that I think will noticeably infect my style, for better or worse. This includes bad books, of course, but also good novels where the author’s style clashes with mine. I also try to avoid books in translation, reasoning that it’s better to read books by great stylists who originally wrote in my own language. The problem? Since I’m always writing, my reading for the past few years has been extremely constrained. I haven’t read Cloud Atlas, for instance, because I’m afraid of being overly influenced by it, and because I don’t want to read anything in translation, I haven’t gotten around to Mario Vargas Llosa, among many others.

Obviously, this state of affairs can’t stand: as much as I like Updike and McEwan, I don’t want to be stuck with them for the rest of my life. And reading and being influenced by radically different authors is an important part of growing as a novelist. At some point, then, I’ll probably need to rethink this approach. (Although not until I finish this draft.)

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