Writing Novels Without a Map

The novelist relies on improvisation as his fiction develops. "The fictional characters have their own volition ... and are capable of proposing new ideas about how they want to live and how they want to interact."
  • Transcript


Question: What is your writing process like?

Rick Moody: I never outline new projects, so that’s the first thing to say.  I sort of feel like structure is something you discover rather than superimpose and my idea there is that superimposition makes the writing process secondary to the drafting process, if you will, the sort of blueprint process.  And I don’t want to have to sit at the keyboard and act like a slave to some outline.  I think that that makes the work structurally manipulative in a way.  I can’t learn things about the characters.  I can’t discover aspects of them I didn’t know about earlier on if this character absolutely has to go to the shopping mall and pull out a submachine gun.  You know?  If I’ve already decided that’s the case, there’s nothing in the process that’s magical or surprising to me and I don’t want to be in that position.  

So usually in terms of structure, I have a character and I have a setting and it’s about improvisation and revision along those lines.  I sort of know what town it’s in and I know what the guy’s job is, but I want to meet him and get to know him and see what he has to say.  

Now, Nabokov is famous for having said, “They’re my slaves, they do whatever I tell them to do.”  And maybe that worked for him, although those later Nabokov novels were all written on index cards and they were very cubist in their structure.  You know, so I’m not certain slaves were not working toward their own liberation behind his back or something.  But for me it has to be about imagining that the fictional characters have their own volition in a way and are capable of proposing new ideas about how they want to live and how they want to interact. 

Do you write every day?

Rick Moody: I don’t work every day, I work in a sort of bingy way, so there’ll be a few months where I work a great deal, you know, 2,500 words a day for weeks at a time, and then periods where I’m just writing short stuff or I’m not really writing very much at all.  And though I have a desk, it’s not my exclusive workplace and I sort of think of desk fetishism as inhibitor rather than as a facilitator. So I’ll work at the library, I’ll work at the coffee shop.  That’s the good thing about the laptop is that everything’s on there now and I can take it wherever I need to go.

How do you maintain focus when you're working on a long novel?

Rick Moody: With novels, you have to try to keep the whole thing in your head a little bit and under those circumstances it is good to go somewhere really quiet and to work intensively for a while.  This may be why the sort of binge-oriented work style that I’m describing is useful to me because when I’m in one of the binges, I sort of do have the whole thing in my head.  And tomorrow’s writing... tomorrow’s writing session is pretty much like today’s writing session.  They were just separated by some sleep.  

So that’s the key for me to sort of try to have the whole thing in solution in my skull for a little while.

It’s really challenging to keep an entire novel in your head because you emotionally move and change over the course of working on it.  So oftentimes a scene that seemed incredibly poignant in one month, two weeks later seems mawkish and imprecise, and you have a completely different feeling about it, you know? The revision process then becomes some kind of compromise between your intention and your editorial impulse and the book becomes what remains after those two disparate impulses have worked their intentions out on one another.  So that’s why revision seems so important to me because my first impulse is so often somewhat undisciplined.  So the revision process enables me to kind of shear off the hangnails that I thought were so impressive at some earlier stage.

Recorded July 28, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman