• One Writer: One Question

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 67 comments
    Feb
    6

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    Discussion questions: You can choose one writer, dead or alive, and ask only one question. Who do you choose, what do you ask, and why? What kind of reply would you hope for? What does your choice of writer and/or question tell you about yourself as a writer? If your writer is alive, have you ever considered finding a way to ask him/her this question?

     

    I grew up listening to an FM morning show in Milwaukee. Every day, Bob & Brian open the “One-Question Line”: Callers are allowed one question, but are hung up on if they make any statement or preface their question with “Can I ask” or “I was wondering” or any such throat-clearing. It’s a silly segment.

    Then why am I writing about it. Well, it’s the coming together of a few things.

    Hearing the segment earlier this week, I wondered what question I might ask of Bob and Brian. And then the natural extension: If I could ask one question of anyone, who would I choose and why.

    Then I thought about you guys and how this is ostensibly a blog about writing, and it became: If you could ask one question of any writer, who would you choose and why?

     

    At Yak Babies we’re planning an episode where we each name the author whose work we’ve kept up with for the longest amount of time.

    I’ve thought through my options, and unless a more appropriate answer comes to mind, mine will be [spoiler alert!] George Saunders. I’ve read his work for probably close to twenty years. I’d estimate I’ve read 90% of his published fiction, and half, give or take, of his nonfiction.

    Saunders was on my mind anyway: This week’s episode is a deep dive into his 1998 story “Sea Oak.”

    So if I could choose one writer to ask one question of, I imagine it would be Saunders.

    Yes, I’ve already had my chance: in 2013 I interviewed Saunders while he was on book tour (here’s an abbreviated version), but at the time my most burning question regarded… our shared love of Johnny Tremain.

    (I also commented, ignominiously, on the size of the toast he was served at breakfast, an incident I recounted in another recent episode and is now featured on a T-shirt.)

    So, given a second chance, what would be my question?

    [Duhr pauses, takes a few minutes to think.]

    [And then… changes his mind.]

    Bait-and-switch!

    Isn’t writing wonderful? You can start out heading in one direction then change course on a dime, but without having to overhaul everything that came before. (Even if you sometimes should…)

     

    Beatlebone is one of my favorite books from one of my favorite writers, Kevin Barry. It’s a fictionalized account of John Lennon visiting his private island off Ireland’s west coast. Lennon is in a creative and existential crisis. He feels his best work is behind him, and has no idea — though, devastatingly, we do — what lies ahead.

    After we read 200 straightforward pages of a 300-page novel, here comes “Part Six.” And Part Six is thirty pages of authorial intrusion at its fiercest: Barry (assuming it’s Barry), speaking to the reader, details the background and research process for the novel he’s so rudely elbowing himself into.

    Part of the reason it works is because Barry’s struggle for inspiration mirrors that of his main character. I get that. Still, it seems to me a crazy, ballsy, but stellar decision.

    So, if I could ask just one question of any one writer, my writer would be Kevin Barry, and my question would be: “What’s up with Part Six?”

     

    That’s what I’m feeling today. Tomorrow? Maybe a different question for a different writer.

    So, with the caveat that you’re not forever bound to today’s response:

    Which writer do you choose, what is your question, and why?

    What kind of reply might you hope for?

    What do you think these choices tell you about yourself as a writer?

    Is your writer alive? If so, have you ever considered trying to find a way to ask your question?

     

    david blogWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2021 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. If you have a manuscript that’s ready for some editorial care, check out our various critiquing, editorial, and proofing servicesFor your FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer, join our mailing list

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    Laura P Valtorta

    My favorite writers are Margaret Atwood, Tom Perrotta, and Curtis Sittenfeld. I would ask Marge Atwood to describe her writing routine. I already knows what she thinks and her philosophies about life from reading all of her books.

    Laura P Valtorta

    It’s curiosity. I have my own writing routine, and I wonder if, for example, Margaret Atwood needs to get exercise before writing. She is the best living writer, in my opinion. Oryx and Crake trilogy.

    Laura P Valtorta

    I do exercise before writing.

    Raymundo

    Ernest Hemingway. “Mr. Hemingway, did WWII defeat fascism outside of Spain?”  Because there is a line in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” that goes: “There are many who do not know they are fascist but will find it out when the time comes.” I get from this that people, like Hemingway, who volunteered to participate in the Spanish Civil War for the socialist government, had a greater understanding of what fascism is, than people do today. Probably even more so than the general population at that time.  I’m sure Ernie would say something like: “No. Hitler and Japan were defeated.… Read more »

    Raymundo

    That would be a great follow-up question to get a mid-twentieth century perspective I would find most interesting. Of course, you’re getting beyond literature there, but the activist writer is a concept worth considering. Think Victor Lazlo in Casablanca. And Hemingway was actually more of a war correspondent, I think, covering the civil war for a newspaper. Of course, our life experiences inform our reading, writing, and the writers we follow.

    Sid Kemp

    Cool topic, David. And so is the converse: What writing did I come by apparently by chance that became central to how I see my life experiences?

    Sid Kemp

    Yes, you got my question right. As one who lives with synchronicity, I’m not sure the arrival of a significant author or book is ever by chance. Certainly, for me, both as a writer and in how I look at my life, the foremost figure would be Tolkien. I found him at summer camp when I was struggling with my parents’ separation and divorce. It was the first inkling (oops! There’s a pun) of both ethical guidance for life and also of the profound difference a writer can make. His struggles as a creative author with an academic career parallel… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    I’m chiming in here because a loving and effective response to fascism is a major concern of mine, and one for which I see no workable solution. If my question was, “How do we defeat fascism?” I would ask J. R. R. Tolkien. For those who want C. S. Lewis’s answer, read That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man. Lewis showed great courage in writing a novel in which England became quickly fascist and publishing it during World War II while his country was fighting the Nazis and thinking the enemy was only abroad. I’m aware of American takes… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    Yes, thanks!

    Elissa Malcohn

    See also It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Can%27t_Happen_Here

    Barbara Mealer

    I’d ask Diana Love how she has kept the Belador series so interesting after 11 books. I normally stop at book 3-5 in ever series, bored out of my mind, but this one, has kept me reading and the characters haven’t gotten stale at all. Even with Harry Potter, I was OK, I want him to grow up and get this nasty guy. Here’s the kicker on the Belador series, I don’t read a lot of paranormal. I find most of it fits into the yeah, right, as if that would ever happen category. But these books drew me and… Read more »

    david lemke

    Professor Plato, was Atlantis real, and, if so, did you ever see any artifacts from there?

    david lemke

    Plato may think, believe Atlantis was real, but if there are artifacts, that would be a great verification. Since Atlantis was supposed to exist 10,000 years ago, well before Plato’s time, him giving me coordinates or a map would be problematic, though possible quite useful.

    Sid Kemp

    Well, David, you’ve asked a question (or two), so I’ll pretend to be the author you asked, and answer, as Atlantis does mean a great deal to me. What would the discovery of Atlantis as real mean to me? My favorite archaeological hypothesis is that Atlantis was inland from the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa, in what is now Morocco. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Location_hypotheses_of_Atlantis#:~:text=According%20to%20Michael%20H%C3%BCbner%2C%20Atlantis,Timaeus%20and%20Critias%20is%20described. This draws my scientific side. What might we discover? How ancient was the city? What technologies did it have? I would expect some impressive stuff, but nothing like what we’ve had since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    For me, no. There has always been ambiguity here. It is called Atlantis, but, until recently, all archaeology placed it in the Mediterranean. I found it unsatisfactory that a place in one sea was named after another ocean. In some legends, the fact of Atlantis as an island is central. In others, it is the architecture of a city with concentric rings. Atlantis has been seen as an island, as a continent (or close), as if once the mid-Atlantic ridge was above the waves, and even (among those who explore reincarnational journeys, and separately, in science fiction) Atlantis was advanced,… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    According to the book, “Atlantic, the Antediluvian World” there is archeological proof that Atlantis existed through the number of artifacts that are alike from various cultures. It is like a 3000 page archeological tome that I read when I thought I wanted to be an archeologist. Yes, I did read it from cover to cover.

    david lemke

    If I can steal a second question, David Weber, are you going to ever finish the Safehold series?

    david lemke

    So far there are ten books, The heroes have won the Safehold war, having defeated the evil priests. Of course this doesn’t mean there won’t be blowback. Finally they can focus on preparing for the real war and then when the time is right, taking the battle to the genocidal aliens. David Weber does war, battles and the preparations for it really well. Currently he is working on some of his other series, but he hasn’t said when or if he will get back to it.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Decades ago I read and loved Mircea Eliade’s three-volume work A History of Religious Ideas, which spans from the Stone Age to the Reformation. His health was failing as he wrote the third volume and a fire had destroyed his notes. I would ask if he had planned to write a fourth volume had he lived long enough, and also if he had planned to publish his notes in some form if they had survived, because History was a very readable but also a considerable condensation of them. Why ask? Because those three volumes left me wanting more. And I would hope his reply… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    If his ectoplasm could answer me, then it can write the new material and reconstitute the notes. :-)

    Annette Hummell

    I would ask Jerry Seinfeld & Tim Allen. Is there a chance of an older person making a career as a comedy writer?

    Sid Kemp

    I hope the answer is yes. I just turned 60, and I find that my response to the world is coming out only as stand-up comedy right now.

    Susan

    My favorite book from the past few years remains Alice McDermott, The Ninth Hour. I am resisting the temptation to just push that button that says “Place Your Order” and get all eight of her novels from Thrift Books. (Hey, free shipping for purchases over $10. Not bad.) The Ninth Hour is about how the suicide of an Irish Catholic immigrant at the turn of the century, in Brooklyn, reverberates 100 years later in the lives of his descendants, and it is about faith in the lives of the poor, the religious, the irreligious, and McDermott herself. I would want to ask… Read more »

    KevinW

    I don’t know who I would ask, but I do find myself wondering if a straight, white, middleaged male American has any relevance trying to write creatively at this time of politically correct cancel culture? I mean, I never considered myself to be The Embodiment Of Oppression, but thinking that my opinion matters or should matter is apparently the proof of my own toxicity…

    KevinW

    I always thought the opposite of “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was “Yell like hell and carry a pool noodle”…so how does an individual define their place, or is it defined for one?

    KevinW

    “You speak your piece, my piece I give you. Go in peace, and sin no more”? …my favorite art was always anything that resonated with me. Popular, unpopular, mainstream, Ava Gardner. I like things I “shouldn’t” like and didn’t like works that I’m”supposed to” like.
    So…say your piece, and use common sense, respect and discretion, and walk on eggshells because you never know who might decide to interpret what in which way, whether through simple misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation. All art is propaganda and all propaganda is art?

    frances hill

    haha, I’d run from someone yelling like hell carrying a pool noodle!

    frances hill

    James Patterson, I’d ask “How does one get to co-write a book with you?”

    frances hill

    I could handle that!

    KevinW

    I. Personally. Would like to. Ghostwrite. For William Shatner. I…believe. It would be. Quite…lucrative, Mr. Spock…

    KevinW

    Warp. Factor. Seven. Mr. Chekhov.

    Sid Kemp

    My first reaction to this post was, “Unfair! That’s like inviting me into an epicurean chocolate shop and telling me that I can get only one truffle of one flavor. Impossible! I got around this crippling restriction by calling my wife, Kris. We are deeply in love (40 years now) and separated by circumstance. She’s 1,300 miles away. We brainstormed answers to this question. This morning, though, the question took another turn inside my mind. The turn was inspired by Philip Jose Farmer and a line of mystical wisdom in the Riverworld series: “You must love yourself, hate yourself, and… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    Thanks, David. I’ll live the answer, and any week I can’t write or any day I feel stuck, I’ll ask the question again. And Kris and I found a related question any writer might find valuable: What life experience would I give myself to make myself a better writer, or include in my writing? And now back to the blog post. So, yes, a process of elimination is already on its way. Kris and I narrowed down from thousands of possible questions to just a few. In fact, I encourage anyone here to make this a fun conversation with a… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    Oops! I just remembered one more, and this is the writer I would ask and the question I would ask if I were calling in right now. The author is a personal favorite, though not well known, Dennis Schmidt. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Schmidt_(author)) The question is: What is behind your choice to write three series, each in such different genres and universes? For those who don’t know, all three series were about enlightened heroes in the genuine Zen sense of the term, in different situations. But Kensho took place in a technologically advanced future human galaxy; Twilight of the Gods took place in… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    No. The only info I’ve been able to find on Dennis Schmidt is that Wikipedia page. I’m sorry I never reached out to him. His Kensho series is, for me, more than good fiction. It is good spirituality and a good model for how to live life. He’s a model for me as a writer, but I can only guess things with regards to how he lived and wrote.

    Elissa Malcohn

    I saw this world-building guide from Patricia Wrede years ago. Very neat template: https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/04/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

    Sid Kemp

    Thanks, Elissa. This looks like a really cool outline.




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