A couple of year ago I saw an episode of Charlie Rose in which the long-winded host interviewed two shorter-winded guests sitting together: Martin Amis, who I think is the most talented craftsman working in English, and Elmore Leonard, almost certainly the greatest crime novelist of all time.
What I found most interesting about the interview was that the two guests seemed to know each other’s work intimately. To my knowledge, the two very different writers had not collaborated on a project; they weren’t there to sell anything. But the highbrow Martin Amis spoke admiringly about Elmore Leonard’s surgically precise dialogue. The concise Leonard insightfully explained Amis’ mastery of the unexpected turn of phrase. Who knew that two highly accomplished writers separated by at least fifty yards at the typical Barnes & Noble knew and read each other?
I find interviews with successful authors bracing and inspiring. For instance, Scott Turow was all over the Internet recently promoting a new novel. I was glad to learn that his first novel to sell, Presumed Innocent, was in fact his fifth novel.
What I admire about the most successful writers (and here I define success as not primarily sales but admiration by informed readers) is that they are much more humble and self-effacing than unsuccessful writers.
If you visit the writers’ groups on LinkedIn, LibraryThing, and Goodreads, as I do, you cannot escape the endless self-praise from apprentice writers with the slimmest of accomplishments. Could it literally be true that the every self-published self-help book, vampire novel, and memoir of growing up in a middle-class suburb of Minneapolis written by a retired public-relations executive, aerobics instructor, or Christian life coach is in fact “great”? Aren’t some of them merely “very good” or even “good”? Aren’t some of them, to be frank, “unremarkable”?
Once I saw the inimitable John Updike discuss, calmly and in considerable detail, the limitations of one of his highly regarded novels. He spelled out exactly what he had hoped to achieve in that book, and then he explained the nature and extent of its failure and what he had learned from it.
I think of these interviews when I try to figure out just how great my new mystery novel, Deviations, is. Although I’m sure it’s not as good as the new books being discussed by their authors on social media, I am confident it isn’t as bad as the typical John Updike novel.
- Lionel Asbo: State of England, By Martin Amis (independent.co.uk)
- Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (virginauthor.wordpress.com)
- Great Moments in Journalism Fan Mail: When Elmore Leonard Likes Your Stuff (observer.com)
- We are such a disappointment to Martin Amis (standard.co.uk)