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Sterling Watson Interview

By Buffy Hastings

What is the relationship between craft, craftsmanship and the trade?  Discuss apprenticeship and a writer’s lineage.

I’m not sure what you mean by “the trade.”  The business side of writing?  In classes, I try to say as little as possible about the writing business.  There’s plenty of time to discuss business in informal gatherings.  Precious class time should be reserved for discussion of ideas.

Apprenticeship is a word that my teachers, Smith Kirkpatrick and Andrew Lytle, used in their Southern tradition of writing and teaching (see my brief recollection of Smith in the inaugural issue of The Christendom Review).  They saw the writer’s education as a movement from apprentice to journeyman to master.  We all hope to become masters of the craft and art.  This way of imagining a writer’s education implies a lifetime of learning, respect for authority, and the embracing of humility.

What makes a book, a read, truly great?

As I have said elsewhere, literature is the secret self of the writer speaking to the secret self of the reader.  No novel or story moves or exalts me unless I have this experience—of meeting the writer in that psychological and emotional terrain where there are no barriers, there is no fakery, and the only attempt is to connect honestly about consequential things.  A great book challenges the intellect, sometimes almost to the breaking point, but for me it is always the truth of the heart that makes greatness.

What would cause you to put down a book and not finish it?

I have to have both good writing and a good story.  I cannot, as many people say they do, “just read for the story.”   I can’t put up with bad grammar (unless, of course, it’s intentional, coming from character), clichés, or just clumsy writing.  I can’t enjoy a story when I am editing it as I read.  A famous bestseller begins with the words, “Trembling with fear . . .” That’s where I stopped reading.  I’m pretty traditional about story.  I need a plot and characters whose backs are to the wall, people who matter to me and who have to do important things to survive.  And of course survival is not just physical; it’s mental, psychological, and emotional.  Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich is dead of cancer when the story opens.  What’s in question is the survival of his soul.

What makes a great sentence?

Above all else, clarity.  And beauty helps.

Hemingway said all you have to do to write fiction is “write one true sentence.”

“Emily opened the front door,” is a true sentence.  No matter that there are probably ten other ways to say the same thing—all of them true.  We have said clearly what Emily did. “Emily opened the front door” is not a great sentence, and “Call me Ishmael” is only considered great now because millions of people have read all of the sentences that follow it, some of them very beautiful. It’s what Emily does next, and next, and next that compounds the difficulty of writing fiction, but still, there is great and comforting truth in Hemingway’s advice.

We tell kids to “compose their thoughts,” and we tell people to “compose yourself.”  What then is the nature of composition, what does it mean to compose and what is a composer?

I don’t think first draft writing is composition.  For me it’s regurgitation.  I think “composition” carries a sense of arrangement, even of perfection.  As Coleridge said, poetry is “the best words in the best order,” so we spend hours and sometimes years searching for those words and that order.  “Compose yourself” implies calm.  The state of mind that gets writing done has to be, I think, calm, still, completely apart from the mind that deals with the demands and worries of ordinary life.  Writing is extraordinary life—in its producer and its product.

You’ve said that great novels are in conversation with other great novels.  Does this notion of a conversation imply that novels are divorced from real life?

When I was a young graduate student, a friend of mine who went on to become an important literary critic told me, “Novels are not about life, they’re about other novels.”  He knew I was writing fiction, and I think he was trying to shock me with what was then a radical idea (I think he’d been reading The Anxiety of Influence).  I had spent a summer not too long before those grad school days working as a welder’s helper on a natural gas pipeline construction crew. One hot August afternoon, the welder and I had done a “hot tap.”  This involves applying a torch that burns at 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit to the 3/8th inch thick steel skin of a pipe carrying natural gas at a pressure of 60 PSI.   When I tried to bring that moment to life, I did not think I was writing about someone else’s book.  Sometimes books are in conversation; sometimes it’s just you and what happened.

When was the last time a book astonished you?

The Forty Fathom Bank, by Les Galloway certainly did, and not so recently, Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and very recently, The Centurions by Jean Larteguy.  John Gardner said, “All great literature has a quality of strangeness.”  Nothing truer has ever been said about great writing, and all of these books are strange in ways that unsettle you and make you ponder them at length.

What is a masterpiece?  Likewise, can a book ever be perfect or is writing by its nature somewhat imperfect?

No book is perfect, but a few come very close to perfection.  Madame Bovary is a masterpiece. The wedding scene in Madame Bovary does not advance the plot and would probably be eliminated from a contemporary novel or at least severely cut. But there’s an education in that scene for writers who want to learn how to use the five senses.

Writing students always ask, “How do you know when it’s finished?”  As an answer to this question, Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned in despair.” You never know, but you know when you have to let it go.  You know when there are no great distortions, only small blemishes.  An ending is like music: If you listen carefully, you will hear the final note.

Isn’t teaching a form of writing, too?

Teaching is a form of composing.  A teacher tries to shape a student’s thinking about writing, while, of course, never attempting to turn a student into a copy of the teacher.  Like writing, teaching requires great patience because students make, and probably must make, the same mistakes over and over again. Learning writing is not a thing of the brain alone, it’s a thing of the hands and the heart.

As a writer you only truly know something when it has become second nature.  When it’s in your hands, not your mind. When it’s already on the page before your mind recognizes it. In this sense, writing is like carpentry or any other trade.  Watch how a good carpenter saws a board by first drawing the saw toward himself alongside his thumb, or how she drives a nail and then takes the time to countersink it with one tap of a nail setter. These things only become second nature through humility, respect, and years of practice.