I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with Peter Selgin (Drowning Lessons, Life Goes to the Movies) on his latest book of writing advice 179 Ways to Save a Novel. The book is more than just a collection of ideas for troubleshooting your work in progress (though it has plenty of practical writing advice for fixing your book). Save a Novel doubles as a thoughtful examination of the writing life–not just the writing, but the reading habits and the thought processes of aspiring novelists. Filled with179 meditations that delve into “matters of vital concern to fiction writers,” this book is an inspiring read from cover to cover (but also easy to dip in out of for quick advice about specific writing concerns). Put simply, it’s one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of editing.
Peter was kind enough to take a few moments out of his busy writing and teaching schedule to answer a few questions:
I like telling this story. I was in art school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. As a painter I had great facility, but no depth and not much to say. One day my studio instructor, Professor Blaustein, accused me of being an “artistic illiterate.” Dejected, I returned to my dorm room and switched on my little portable black & white TV to Richard Burton’s face filling the screen, saying something about bergin, “bergin and water.” It was a monologue from the film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on Edward Albee’s play. I watched, mesmerized. The performance was of course very good, but the words were what captured me. The next day I found those same words in print in the Pratt Library. It struck me then that one could “paint” with words. I began writing with passionate intent immediately thereafter.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
Strangely enough a play with a “mesmerizing” monologue stuck in the middle of it. In fact I wrote a series of plays, all with “mesmerizing” monologues that would have benefited greatly from Richard Burton’s voice and delivery. The second of these plays was a biting satire of my parents that I titled “The Swine Interview.” You can imagine how enormously pleased they were.
179 Ways to Save a Novel includes a lot of examples of works in progress from your students. Do you stay in touch with all of them? Are there any success stories?
Not with all of them, no, only with a fraction, since by now I’ve taught thousands. By various degrees they’ve all succeeded, which is to say they’ve all kept at it, though only a handful have published and fewer still have had books. But not all have wanted to publish. To do so requires a very set determination. My most successful student has published several books. I take no credit for it.
You write about the importance of reading as a writer. What are your favorite 5 books of all time?
That’s always a tough question to answer; the target keeps moving. For instance, I’ve just recently started reading two books, both coincidentally by Swedes, that may bump their way onto the list: Pär Lagervist’s Guest of Reality, and The Death of the Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson. The latter, first published in 1981 (translated from the Swedish by Janet Swaffar), is the first person narrative of a beekeeper dying of cancer, his death set into a wintry Swedish landscape as barren as “a pencil sketch.” It’s one of those plotless wonders that grip despite a total lack of traditional suspense or narrative. Hell, anyone can do it with plot!
In your opinion, what is the number one reason for someone to choose writing as a career?
Beyond masochism? The desire to spend as much of one’s time as possible invested in words, sentences, paragraphs, characters. If you’re deeply in love with these things, then reading alone may not do the trick; you may have to write.
Check out a more in depth with Peter Selgin on WritersDigest.com