Wonderbook Interview with John Crowley

John Crowley lives in the hills above the Connecticut River in northern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters. He is the author of, among others, Daemonomania; Love & Sleep; Aegypt; Little, Big; The Translator; Novelties & Souvenirs; Lord Byron’s Novel; and Four Freedoms.

What role or roles do your nightmares and dreams play in your fiction?

A rather large one. Michael Chabon in a recent New York Review says he hates dreams, his own and (even more) hearing about others’. Mine have frequently granted me insights into what I’m doing, and they tell stories I can use. Even more, I find a kind of inspiration in the mere ability I have in sleep to come up with such astonishing, surprising stories that seem so rich in elusive meaning. The end of a story (published in the Yale Review a couple of years back) called “Little Yeses, Little Nos” ends with a lengthy transcription of an actual dream. And like Lewis Carroll I use the feelings of dream – the peculiar transitions, the impossibilities accepted, the sudden revaluations – as fictional tools.

What’s the process of “cooking” autobiography into fiction for you? Or would you describe it some other way?

“Encoding”? I have used autobiography not only as matter, that is to fill out stories in lieu of thinking up imaginary stuff, in amounts ranging from a sentence to most of a novel, but as a means of describing (to myself; others aren’t supposed to be able to easily decode it) my own situation. But I don’t think I could be said to have ever written a memoir-novel or an autobiographical Thomas Wolfe-style thing. Some of the most fantastical stuff in my fiction – the fairy princess Sylvie in Little, Big or the spiritual collapse of Pierce Moffett in Dæmonomania – are drawn in their emotional cast from events in my life. The Kentucky of the first part of Love & Sleep is almost entirely autobiographical as a place. The world, the context, and much of the detail in The Translator came directly from my life – though I’m not a woman and never fell in love with a professor (or a lost god).

What’s your approach to writing your rough draft—what do you need to have figured out in order to commit words to paper?

I don’t really write rough drafts in the way the term is usually used. I write draft pages, draft notes, draft scraps, but for the most part I can only write when I know pretty well – very well, actually, most of the time – where I’m going and how I might get there. The idea of writing an entire novel, or even a large part of one, only to basically discard it is dreadful to me. Before I start I know the beginning, the end, the emotional color, the characters and their strengths and weaknesses (or actually I know them the way we know characters in dreams: we intuit or recognize what they’re like, without working it out). I know about what size the book will be. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of surprises along the way, and some wrong roads taken and backtracked out of, but the final thing is basically what I imagined, even if I could never have imagined it – if that makes sense.

You write incredibly complex novels that seem, to me, multi-dimensional and to exist off of the page as well in a way I can’t quite explain. Do you ever have difficulty knowing where the story lies? In other words, do you often see multiple possibilities and could easily have gone in a different direction, or shown a different part of the whole? (this may be the idiot’s question)

I think that’s basically answered in the previous exchange. There are fictions that seem to approach the actual world in their degree of complexity (an illusion really) – like Proust’s and Joyce’s in Ulysses, or very differently but perhaps more pertinently here, Paul Park’s in A Princess of Roumania. (The fact that it’s a fantasy doesn’t matter – mine are too.) And central to that sense of complexity is the sense of a cloud of possibilities surrounding the path actually taken. It may have something to do with how much my central characters tend to ponder their circumstances, try to pry into what’s really the case by thought alone. Of course they are thinking my thoughts as I work, but they are also often wrong about the whole course of their story, and I know it.

 How does the inexplicable inform your fiction?

This is a central problem and a central opportunity in creating work that has fantasy or the fantastic at its heart. The world, this one, is inexplicable, and realistic novels can only be great and large-hearted and convincing if that inexplicability is featured: only if – even if there is a fixed and resolved plot – that inexplicability convincingly surrounds the characters and action. That beautiful dialogue at the end of Ulysses where Bloom and Stephen are trying to break into Bloom’s house, a dialogue that keeps insisting on rational answers to practical questions but in fact stands for the wondrous inexhaustibility of the world. In fantasy and genre fiction in general, the drive tends to be toward complete explication of a problem or situation – a quest, a crime, a treasure, a mystery. (You may have noticed how many fans of such fiction get annoyed when the story drifts away from this work.) How then can I as a writer draw that inexplicability into my fantastic fiction? In part it’s through allegory: the soluble mystery stands for the insoluble. For me it tends to be what I described earlier – that characters feel themselves to be in a world that they can’t grasp in its essence, even if readers think they can.

Do you agree that it is part of the writer’s job, in a sense, to inhabit other people’s lives? Are there limits to this, if so?

I don’t believe that the writer has a job description. The limits of what a writer may do or not do lie in the writer and in a sense the ontological possibilities of fiction, though where those lie I don’t know. I certainly know there are writers who feel that this channeling of humans (real or on another plane) is their job; it’s never seemed to me to be mine. It’s utterly impossible, for instance, for me to imagine a character of mine entering a different novel of mine.

How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?

I’ve never written a novel that ended up in some place entirely different than I supposed it would, though the paths it can take to get to where I imagined are sometimes highly surprising (and amusing, or moving, in the surprise.) Not long after I began working on the Ægypt books, I imagined the whole of it ending as my character or characters go off into the spring rain and the beating of their hearts, like the shepherd in Lycidas: “And so the youth arose, and twitched his mantle blue/ Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.” Twenty-some years later, there it was. Little, Big early on was to have a late or last scene where a character who must take a long journey packs up his married life in a Gladstone bag to take with him. It took years for me to see how, and to whom, and what marriage, that would be.

Do you tend to revise your novels even after publication? Say, for the reissues? Can you give an example or two of a change, if so?

I’ve never done that. In the uniform paperback edition of the Ægypt cycle I had the opportunity to take out some repetitive stuff, designed to help readers remember (after the long interval between one volume and the next) what was at issue; I made one elision and added one scene that hadn’t made it into the early editions. When a new illustrated limited edition of Little, Big began production, the editor and publisher (Ron Drummond) urged me to make any changes I liked, and dozens, maybe hundreds, were made, at his suggestion and mine, none more than a sentence or two long, and by far the most at the word or punctuation-mark level. I don’t suppose most readers, even passionate fans, would notice most of them – but they are improvements and gratifying to me.

For novels like Little, Big, your comments to me indicate you write quite a bit by feel, in a very organic way. Do you outline at all? Even if it’s just trying to work out something with regard to character or how characters interact? Or is that all going on in your head, solely?

I can’t imagine writing in any way except by feel, if by feeling you also mean thinking emotionally or in the artist’s mode. I rarely make outlines except to make sure that the things I have had happen, or plan to have happen, don’t result in absurdity or paradox (unwanted paradox, that is). For a long time while writing the third volume of Ægypt, I had a long list taped to the wall of all the weird notions that had arisen in the first two volumes so I’d remember to bring them all up again. As to working out how characters are going to interact, see above – I really don’t do that.

Do you think a model like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey is truly universal? Do you find it useful or…?

It’s odd. I’ve read Campbell (though not that one) and, more useful to me, Northrop Frye’s The Secular Scripture: A Study of Romance. But for the most part – except for nuggets and tropes and thoughts to use along the way – I’ve never used them to fashion a story. On the other hand, nearly every story I’ve written has met in one way or another the mythopoeic categories or structures outlined in those books. Sometimes I recognize them as soon as I conceive of a situation, sometimes in the midst of working one out (when it can be both useful and confusing), and sometimes only after the work’s done. The Gnostic mythos (as described in Hans Jonas’s book The Gnostic Religion) has been incorporated more directly in the last two volumes of Ægypt and differently in The Translator.

On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?

You’re always stuck between fear and hubris – believing that what you’re doing is unparalleled, and believing it’s worthless, even shameful. Paul Park says that the writing of some writers is unclear and muddled precisely because writers don’t want to be understood: they are afraid if they are understood clearly, their stupid foolishness will be apparent. And the great problem is that nobody can tell you that your self-love or your fears are misplaced. Not critics, or reviewers, or fans, or even sales. With practice, and with wide readership, you’ll learn somewhat. Meanwhile you can only be honest with yourself and hope to develop an objectivity that is in some sense not that of a critic but is – as Joyce put it – godlike and impersonal. I think it’s a greater problem for writers with a wide fandom that thinks the writer can do no wrong or writers writing for a circle, the lovers of their own love for a genre. We all know what wretched writing that can produce and what the temptation is to produce it.

What’s the worst type of writing advice, about the art of it, that you’ve seen, and why?

The first thing to do when you are offered any rule about what constitutes good writing is to see if you can think of some book or story that you admire, or the world admires, that breaks that rule. If you can, believe (until you learn differently) that you yourself are among the writers who can break it. (You have to know it in order to break it, though.) Think how lean the fiction shelves would be if everybody had followed “show don’t tell” and “write what you know” and all that. I teach creative writing, and I long ago learned that the very best writers I encountered, though they were often eager for my opinions and my counsel, were the writers who largely ignored it. Good for them.

Why do you write?

I write in order to win immortal fame: to not ever die entirely. I didn’t used to think that was why (though I admired the old writer I would someday be). I wrote because of the delight; the sheer animal pleasure, up there with the top two or three that could be named, of achieving a page or a sentence. I delighted in the challenges I set myself. But more often now (at just shy of 70) I feel that I write, and really wrote, to live. To be a Dewey decimal number (as a poet I know put it) that can never be taken away. Well, maybe it can; even a minor fame or persistence could be unwinnable. The pages, like all pages, could vanish in the Cloud. As the generation of leaves, so is that of men – and of course leaves are pages, aren’t they?