This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online. It includes author interviews with Hilary Mantel, Naomi Novik, Jonathan Gottschall, and Melissa Coleman.
Originally, you’ve said, you planned just “one enormous book” on Thomas Cromwell, but now we’re looking at a trilogy. When did you realize first that his story needed two books, and now three?
I think that fiction, even historical fiction, is inherently unpredictable. You know what the story is, but you don’t know until you tell it where its power is located, where
you will place the focus and how you need to shape it. I did originally imagine there would be just one book, but as I began to tell the story of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, I realized that it needed to be played out properly, that it couldn’t be hurried: that it was, in fact, the climax of a book, not an episode in a book. At that point, I decided that Wolf Hall would end with More’s death, and the royal party heading for the house named in the title. With Bring up the Bodies, the process of discovery was virtually the same, though it still caught me unawares. I came to write the end of the Boleyns, and realized that I already had a book; the buildup to that tragedy is so stealthy, the climax so horrifying, that I thought the reader would want to pause, close the book, take a breath.
So the whole project reshaped itself for a second time, and very swiftly; in each case, the process of realization took a split second; and the second after that, it seemed obvious. To some readers it might sound as if my method of work is very disorganized. I’d prefer to think of it as an organic, evolving process: sudden discoveries and sudden demands breeding changes of tactics. I like to gather my material, think for a long time, but make the business of writing itself as spontaneous and flexible as possible. If I can I like to take myself by surprise.
What was it about Thomas Cromwell that initially drew you to him as a way to write about the Tudor period?
It appealed to me because his character had never been explored properly in fiction or drama. Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith and brewer, and this stratified, hierarchical society, he rose to become the king’s right-hand man and eventually Earl of Essex; you have to ask, how did he do it? Luck? Calculation? Both, surely, but what combination of the two? And what drove him? When you worked for Henry VIII, the stakes were so high. One slip and you were dead. I wanted to try to work out what combination of ambition and idealism motivated Cromwell. In what ways was he typical of his time, and in what ways unique? And as I was asking myself, as I always do when I write I historical fiction, how did this man’s life feel, from the inside?
When you stand in Cromwell’s shoes, familiar events are defamiliarised. The story, which is irresistible in itself, comes up fresh and new.
On your website, you offer a few “deleted scenes” from the Temeraire books, and you note there “I tend to write fast and revise heavily, and I cut liberally.” Tell us a bit more about your writing process: when do you do most of your writing? Where? Do you compose in longhand, or use a computer?
I have no rules other than that I tend to change my rules fairly often. Each book has worked differently. My life has changed quite a lot over the course of writing the series—I have a new baby now, so I write from 9:30 to 4:30 because that’s when I have child care. My natural state of writing is really more writing from 11 in the morning to 3 a.m.; that’s my intuitive style. I do generally like to work at a fairly fast pace—when it’s flowing I’m getting two to three thousand words a day. I still like to get the skeleton down and then polish it. My single biggest trick for when I need to focus and get productivity is to go somewhere where there isn’t internet, so I’ll go to a café with a laptop and just write there. It’s actually getting increasingly hard to avoid the internet, though. I don’t really write longhand unless I get stuck; if I get stuck, then what I do is grab a journal and start writing some longhand, and that loosens things up a bit. Once I’ve started, I like so much having the freedom to revise heavily and save different versions that I always really want to be on the computer.
Anything you’d like to tell us about the next Temeraire volume (the eighth)? Have you selected a title yet? Any hint of where Laurence and Temeraire might be off to next?
My working title for it is “Luck and Palaces,” and I suppose I can give a hint, which is that that is from a translation of poems by Wisława Szymborska, and the line is about the city of Kyoto. So that’s my little hint. The other clue I will give is that it’s the year 1812.
I had the chance to talk with Jonathan Gottschall about The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
If you can give us the nutshell version, what is it about stories (whether it be fiction, or drama, or televised sports, or dreams, or computer games) that makes us as humans so attracted to them, and gives them such a powerful hold over us?
Homo sapiens is this weird sort of primate that lives inside stories, and we don’t know why for certain. I cover several competing ideas in the book, but they all break down into two big categories. 1) We like stories because they have hidden evolutionary benefits. 2) The mind isn’t designed for story, it has a glitch that makes it vulnerable to story. In the latter view, fiction is like porn—a mere pleasure technology that we’ve invented to titillate the pleasure circuits of the brain. I argue that story addiction is mainly good for us: story is a whetstone for the mind, and it acts as a kind of social glue—helping to bind individuals together into functioning societies.
It was an experience with a song that prompted you to write this book, as you note in the opening pages. Tell us about that moment, and do you see significant differences in the way humans are affected by stories in different media (print, song, video, &c.), or does the impact tend to be similar?
One day, I was driving down the highway and happened to hear the country music artist Chuck Wicks singing “Stealing Cinderella”—a song about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind. Before I knew it, I was blind from tears, and I had to veer off on the road to get control of myself and to mourn the time—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there on the side of the road feeling sheepish and wondering, “What just happened?” I wrote the book to try to answer that question. How can stories—the fake struggles of fake people—have such incredible power over us? Why are we storytelling animals?
And yes, different forms of storytelling affect us in different ways. Most popular songs are stories set to music, and they evoke powerful emotion. The same goes for films. People respond so intensely and authentically to film, that when psychologists want to study an emotion, like sadness, they subject people to clips from tear-jerkers like “Old Yeller” or “Love Story”.
Last but not least, Lisa Carey interviewed Melissa Coleman about her book This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, now out in paperback.
What made you decide to write this memoir? Was it something you always intended to write about?
Somehow I managed to avoid writing, and talking much, about my childhood for many years, fearing, I think, that I was responsible for some of the tragic things that happened. However, with the birth of my children, the past began urging me to make peace. I also found myself wanting to celebrate the beauty and connection to nature in my childhood, and the amazing effort made by my father, Eliot Coleman, and others, to lay the foundations for today’s organic food revolution.
How much research was involved to bring such rich detail to the parts that occurred before you were old enough to remember it? You have your mother’s journals. Did your parents help you otherwise in the process of telling this story?
I began with my own scraps of memories, images from photos, and family stories, but I needed to do a lot of research to fill in the blanks. There was my mother’s journal, numerous news articles about us, books by the Nearings and others, and I tracked down and interviewed many of the apprentices and people who visited us during the 1970s. It was only with the help of all these people, especially my parents, that I was able to tell this story.
Was this a difficult book to write? Or was it liberating?
Both! It’s incredibly difficult to dig into painful events in the past, but also very rewarding to let them go and find the beauty beneath. The liberation that came was something like what comes from making compost. You put all these scraps of things into a pile and let them settle and soon enough they turn into black gold, as my father calls compost, the rich soil in which new life can grow.
Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.