Tag Archives: James Salter

Interview with author, Roger King

How do writers decide to become writers? Especially when they get very little encouragement? And when they have exciting and worthwhile jobs doing other things? I only know one published author well enough to ask these questions, Roger King, whose most recent book is just out in paperback: Love and Fatigue in America. So here is another first for Bookword: after the guest blog an interview with a published author.

99 RogerI met Roger in the summer of 1983 when he had just published his first novel, Horizontal Hotel. We have been friends ever since, despite living in close proximity in West London (he could see into my garden), his move to the US, and meeting infrequently, usually in the British Museum. We always spend some time talking about books and writing. I am grateful to Roger for introducing me to the novels of Shirley Hazzard, especially The Great Fire. Definitely a recommended read.

I interviewed Roger and found out stuff I didn’t know despite 31 years of friendship and reading all his books. We had been on a damp tour of sailing berths and the coast in South Devon – Salcombe, Slapton Sands and a break in Dartmouth. The interview took place in a deserted Dartmouth tea room.

How did you get into writing?

I always wanted to be a writer. I was a sickly child at the age of 8-10, and conceived a project to capture what it was like to be a child before I was too old to remember. I was convinced that grown-ups were unable to imagine what it was like to be a child, and that in a few years I would also be unable to. I never wrote it. But I retained the idea of life being too valuable to be lived just once, that it warranted being turned over, digested and recreated in some new form – the considered, treasured life. I held onto that.

When I first met you, you were also working as an international development consultant with the UN.

I secretly always planned to be a novelist, despite first studying food science and then going on to a masters and a PhD in agricultural economics. It was a long detour that led through work in twenty countries. It did give me something to write about. When I finally started to write seriously, without any background in literature or the arts, I felt encouraged by such American writers as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, who drew on direct experience and were not intimidated by literary authority.

Who encouraged you?

No one encouraged me. Everyone thought it was a stupid idea. At school I scored high marks in creative writing but poorly in spelling and punctuation, so I came out mediocre. At thirteen we had to choose between arts and sciences and science was the practical choice. My father worked in a factory and my family saw education as a route to finding a respectable, secure job not self-expression.

At twenty-two I went to study in America and met a friend who was studying for a PhD in literature. She gave me a reading list of all the writers I should had read – I still have it. It was all self-taught. I started reading seriously but after forty years I am still filling in some embarrassing gaps in my literary education – though somehow I got away with teaching postgraduate English literature along the way.

At the UN, working in agricultural economics, international development and working to alleviate rural poverty, the people I knew thought writing fiction was trivial – decadent – in comparison with the work we were doing. I thought it could express a fuller, more complex truth. The jury is still out.

In my thirties I made a key choice by turning down a post heading a UN project at Oxford University – my perfect job in terms of my first career. After agonising, I chose instead to rent a cheap room and write my first novel. I then sent the manuscript off and went to work in Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. It was accepted by Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch. I didn’t know until my return. She was surprised not to have heard from me for months after the book was accepted.

Up to that time I was completely naïve about being a writer. I was 35 and had never met anyone who worked in publishing, or any published writers. I had no idea of whether I was any good, or how difficult it could be to make a career. It was beginners luck – it’s never been that simple again.99 photo cover

What are you most proud of in your writing?

I am most proud of having persisted. And of trying to do something new and thoughtful with each new book. I like to think there is more to be discovered for readers who spend more time with the books. I’m interested in doing more than just writing stories.

What are you most disappointed by?

99 Love & FThat it has taken so long to write five books, especially the slow progress of the last 20 years. [Readers of Roger’s most recently published book, Love and Fatigue in America, will be aware that he has been living with a severe form of ME in the last two decades. This book is described as autobiographical fiction on its cover.]

Sea Level is probably my favourite book, adventurous in form and written partly in poetic prose. It was an intuitive and a cogent way of writing, and tough to make it work, that is make it compelling and enjoyable. It requires the reader to read in imaginative ways, and not be led into the book simply by the linear logic of plot.

Since you have been based in America, you have frequently spent time in artists’ colonies. What do you get out of them?

They are a godsend to all artists. For a time, they take away all distractions and all other responsibilities and allow you to go deeply into your work. Everyone there is an artist and everyone is working. It is in the air that art is significant and important – away from the world where art can be seen as a marginal diversion.

Colonies put you in touch with people in other arts, which feeds into one’s own work.

It’s a mainly an American thing, not so much in the UK. But they are now proliferating around the world. Artists colonies have been essential to me because ME leaves me with scarce energy and at colonies any energy I have can go into work.

What about creative writing course? Can creative writing be taught?

Creative writing courses are a good way to step away from contingent life and be with like-minded people for a time. But there is a limit to what can be taught – and little to be gained without the writer starting out with an original voice and an original way of seeing the world. You can’t teach people that; that’s in the soul. There’s a danger of producing a multitude of irreproachably competent professionals with nothing much to say.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just completed the first full draft of a new novel. It is the opposite of autobiographical, being fully imagined and researched. It has to do with memory and violence. It traces the widening rings of effect from cold war violence in Latin America and Asia and how it’s internalised in the personal lives of three people in the present day.

Recommended recent reads?

  • I enjoyed Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, that leads from a life much like her own on a remote Canadian island to the interior life of a pacifist Japanese Kamikaze pilot in WWII. [I loved this too: see my review on this blog.]
  • Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, has gentrifying outsiders inadvertently opening the recent wounds of war in Croatia.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s, fascinating and unsettling Childhood of Jesus, brings a queasy humanity to religious fable.
  • I enjoyed the light-footed wit and originality of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, as much as I was irritated by her more showy and overstuffed The Luminaries.
  • Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was also well stuffed, but a compelling pleasure.
  • James Salter’s All That Is is the work of the mature master.

99 Rogers pile

Roger’s published books:

  • Horizontal Hotel(1983)
  • Written on a Stranger’s Map(1987)
  • Sea Level(1992)
  • A Girl from Zanzibar(2002)
  • Love and Fatigue in America(2012) The link to the facebook page for this book is here. His web site is www.rogerking.org

 

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Stoner by John Williams

What is a good life? This question stalks my reading, of fiction about older women, of feminist texts and of last year’s surprise success – Stoner by John Williams. I had read references to it in the end of year lists, and it was especially endorsed by Julian Barnes in the Guardian Review in December 2013. I was also drawn to it by its academic setting, having been employed for the last 20 years in a university.

85 Stoner cover

This is not a novel that made an immediate impact, for it was first published in the US in 1965, and in the UK in 1973. Even today it is apparently more popular in Europe than in the US. I don’t know what made it become a word of mouth success last year, but it did. In his piece Julian Barnes describes how the introduction by John McGahern led him to the opening page and then how he was drawn in.

… And the prose was clean and quiet. And the first page led to the second and then what happened was that joyful internal word-of-mouth that sends a reader hurrying from one page to the next; which in turn leads to external word-of-mouth, the pressing of the book on friends, the ordering and sending of copies.

The narrative follows William Stoner entering the new University of Missouri at 19 to his death, at the age of 64 when he was an assistant professor of English Literature in the same university. His career, we are warned in the opening paragraph, was unremarkable and he was held ‘in no particular esteem’ by his colleagues. Why, then is his life the subject of a novel of nearly 300 pages?

In some ways one might perceive Stoner’s life as a slow accumulation of failure and disappointment. In the closing pages of the novel, Stoner is lying on his deathbed and considers his life.

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. (p285)

He considers his career in teaching, mostly he concedes as an indifferent one. And he asks himself repeatedly, ‘What did you expect?’ And the reader must ask this question, about the novel and about life.

Despite the apparent failure, (and we need to stress the appearance of failure, as Stoner does in the first sentence of the extract above) he has managed a life that is sad, but good. By relating Stoner’s life from boyhood to death in ‘clean and quiet prose’, Williams reveals its small actions, or inactions, all performed from a sense of integrity. His marriage is loveless and gives very little to either of them, and for much of their life together they can hardly be said to share anything. Even their daughter grows up to escape them through an early pregnancy and then alcoholism. She goes to live far away. Stoner’s career is overshadowed by a long feud with Lomax, who becomes his head of department, and they don’t talk for years. Lomax is vindictive, which Stoner accedes to (class schedules) for years until he finds a way to rebel. The breakdown in their relationship occurred because Stoner doubted the competence of a student favoured by Lomax.

He falls in love with a young woman, it is reciprocated and for less than a year he experienced love, companionship and delight with Katherine. Their behaviour was unacceptable in the 1950s, and they part. Their separation marks the end of Stoner’s only happy period.

And he becomes a teacher. He himself was overcome with the importance of English Literature when as an undergraduate he was exposed to Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. Since that moment he has immersed himself in teaching the subject. For me, this was the weakest element of the book – not the moment of revelation, which leaves Stoner silent, unable to breathe or speak. But we get no sense of his classes, his relationship with his students, the pleasures he derived from teaching. We are told on the first page that ‘very few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses’.

John Williams

John William’s writing is spare and even. He is able to provide insights into his character’s behaviour without flourish. Here, for example, is Stoner’s wife Edith. She is not a bad woman, but she was brought up in a way that did not encourage a decent relationship.

Her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from the recessive and unspoken moral force. She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfil them. (p54)

I think that just about sums up the moral education of young women for millennia, and why it has been so important to oppose it.

John Williams is very good a portraying awkwardness between people – Stoner and his parents, who hardly ever speak, with his wife and his head of department. I wished he had had the courage or the beliefs that would allow him to take on his wife as she manoeuvred him about the house as if he was an inconvenient piece of furniture. The prose is spare, never racy or dramatic, reminding me of John McGahern’s novels and also of James Salter’s All that Is. These writers are also skilled at retelling the lives of men who lived in difficult circumstances – not so far removed from our own experiences – and for whom everyday activities and concerns add up to decent lives.

In addition to Julian Barnes’ piece, I also recommend this review on the Vulpes Libris blog.

 

Have you read Stoner? How did you respond to it?

 

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