Ivey: How much do you really want to know?

Welcome to our March featured author, Eowyn Ivey.

It’s inevitable during Q&A sessions with published authors — “What time of day do you write?” “Do you use a computer, or write longhand?” “Where do you find your ideas?” I admit it. I’ve asked. The truth is we are desperate to uncover the secret. Please tell us there is one. Some little trick. A time of day. A brand of pen. The key they all jangle in their pockets, while the rest of us scrabble around in the dirt looking for it.

I know better. There are no easy tricks. The work should be the joy. I know. I know. Yet, I still look. I read author biographies and follow publishing blogs. Thanks to 49Writers, I hit the jackpot – the Paris Review interviews. Louise Erdrich, Seamus Heaney, William Vollman, Toni Morrison. It’s like a box of chocolates that I can’t stop gorging on.

But one of the interviews was cautionary. The editor Robert Gottlieb said he advised Joseph Heller to not talk publicly about the role Gottlieb played in the final form of Catch-22. “The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me,” Gottlieb said. “—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations: I don’t want to know that!”

It has happened to me. I dig into an author’s background, and what I find takes away from my enjoyment of the writing.

The Education of Little Tree began for me as a surprising, quietly wonderful little book. It was funny and touching. It wasn’t until after I finished reading it that it went bad. Looking for other writing by Forrest Carter, I found an essay about him. He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a speech writer for the Alabama Governor George Wallace. Critics have argued that his short novel was in fact an argument for the segregation of Native Americans.

In an NPR interview, Billy Collins said he doesn’t like mixing biography in with his reading of an author. Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian, a celibate? Did she have an affair? “So there are many speculations about her, but I think the poems are self-sufficient,” he said. He said he prefers the poems to the life.

With most modern authors, you don’t have to dig far to learn about their lifestyles and beliefs – interviews, Facebook, Twitter, blogging. You can read about their influences, their feuds with other authors and critics, their difficulties with editors and agents, their personal situations, their politics.

A few, like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx, keep to themselves. Remote ranches. Unlisted phone numbers. I doubt they are friending people on Facebook. It’s possible their political views are different than mine. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I want their fiction, and maybe it helps that I don’t know a lot about them. Then again, I do know McCarthy was once so down-and-out that he didn’t have any toothpaste until a free sample showed up in his mailbox. And Proulx is in the Paris Review interviews, and she is deliciously cantankerous. I think all that might be inspiring. I haven’t decided.

So I end with a dilemma. On one hand, true-life details about authors bring them down to earth. It’s interesting, following an author’s development of an idea and struggles with revisions. It’s liberating, knowing that the best of them have doubts and have been doubted. Just like the rest of us, they put down one word at a time, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. As a writer, I find hope in this.

As a reader, though, I want the illusion. I want to read a cohesive, powerful creation that sprang from the author’s forehead fully intact. No second guesses. No doubts. No last-minute character swapping or alternative endings. I don’t want to know that the author drinks too much or voted for the wrong guy or once stabbed his wife with a penknife. I just want the novel. The poem. Free and aglow, unencumbered by anyone else’s vanity or smallness. “The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Ezra Pound. I don’t know a thing about him.

So as I prepare for my first novel to be launched into the world, I wonder – how much do I share? Do I talk about my writing process so I can connect with other people? Do I share my Alaska lifestyle that some will find fascinating, others incomprehensible? Or do I go with reclusive and secretive, leaving all to the reader’s imagination?

How much have you shared about yourself with your readers? How much do you want to know about your favorite authors?

Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel THE SNOW CHILD is set to be published next winter by Little, Brown & Co. She is a bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer.

6 thoughts on “Ivey: How much do you really want to know?”

  1. Hi Eowyn,

    Susan Fadiman has an excellent essay about the Culture Wars in her collection At Large and At Small. In it, she examines her love for Herman Melville's Mob-Dick and her revulsion at finding out that he was a wife beater and horrible parent. More generally, she examines how the right and the left differ in looking at works of art and their creators. Should the moral character of the work alone determine its value, or should we consider the moral integrity of the work's creator as well?

    You can probably guess how both sides vote on the issue. Personally, I look at works of art, especially literary works of art, as our best selves, the kinds of lives we aspire to but hardly ever achieve. Once "released" by the writer, a book holds meaning (or not) independent of the writer's character or intentions.

    Still, you better not look into Ezra Pound's background.

  2. Oh dear. You roused my curiosity, and now I find out that Pound was a notorious Hitler and Mussolini sympathizer who abandoned an illegitimate child to poverty in Germany. But he also helped the careers of many famous authors, including Joyce, Hemingway, T.S. Elliot. “As early as 1917 Carl Sandburg wrote in Poetry: ‘All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned.’” Nearly 100 years later, I guess Sandburg was right. Thanks Michael, I think. And I'll look for the essay you mentioned.

  3. I have a clear pre-knowing period and a post-knowing period. Post is better. There is something about "self as artist," (me) that is fed by experiencing these other selves as artists. So many were so crazy and why I like that I am not sure. That Pound was in the asylum and that he was visited by Berryman and others. I swear that all the poets of the 50's slept with each other, except Frost. Yes, I exaggerate but not by much. They visited each other on their jaunts to other states and when you read the collected letters, the essays, criticisms of one, the others turn up by name and soon you feel the small society. I love that and want to emulate it. It's alarming how many spent time in the asylum…particularly the poets and how many were wild things, sleeping with their university students and angering their wives/husbands. Some how this frees me in ways not quite so destructive. I had concluded that the group in the 50's were the advance guard for the sexual revolution of the 60's and then I read Louise Bogan, writing for the New Yorker and flaunting convention with lovers and darlings, with no need even to note it as such, just living her provocative life (as revealed in her letters)and this in the 30's. So, I thought this was still some early precursor to the 60's until I read Edna St Vincent Millay whose youth was in the 1910's. In her biography "Savage Beauty" at one point she is in Greenwich Village helping her adult sister practice saying very bad words, so she could be one with the sect — and they were the same bad words that are very bad now, to say nothing of other extremes of drinking and loving. About that time, I began to see the vein that runs through a creative community… one of breaking free, breaking taboos, the urge to shirk societies leash, many other urges and the desire to live across a wide canvas. None of which I endorse, I just notice the common call and find the consistency across decades remarkable (especially the poets). This analysis could go on. There are elements that are more profound, more serious, but I find them in the lives — I want to read about the lives. And the kind of pen they used. The kind of impulse they used up. (I must run and have no time to re-read this and correct typos and mis-speaks. Please indulge me). Sandy Kleven c

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Eowyn — loved this!

    Sandy — I smiled at the backwards chronology; we think wild living started in the 60s (no, the 20s, no the 1890s… and on it goes).

    Michael — thanks for mentioning the interesting right/left division. So interesting. The Fadiman essay is one I'd like to read.

    My own feelings see-saw between embracing the work alone to finding inspiration and consolation in the humanity and complexity of the authors. Great conversation!

  5. In case anyone is interested, in 2004, I wrote a review for the Alaska Native Knowledge Network calld "Peeling Away the Bark: Examining the Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter.


    Since then, however, my views on writing and writers have evolved as I am now a full-time writer. I ask myself: Do I want to be under such scrutiny in order to be considered worthy of being a writer? Thanks Eowyn for having this discussion. And thanks, Sandy, for reminding me about the interesting lives of some of our best writers.

  6. Your essay is fascinating, Vivian. I just took the chance to read it, and it further develops the concerns that I came across earlier. I must admit, I haven't reread Little Tree since I learned about its author. I wonder how it would influence my reading experience. And that is one of the struggles, isn't it — should it influence me? And would I want readers to look to my personal life in trying to judge and interpret my fiction? I am still ambivalent, but have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion. Thank you all for your thought-provoking comments.

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