Master Mondays: An Interview with Kathryn Savage and Max Ross
As part of our Master Mondays interview series, Max Ross and Kathryn Savage recently caught up to talk about character, plot, and crafting good fiction. The conversation turned to the struggle between the impulse to be original and stealing from other writers, naturally.
Max: To answer your very good question, Kathryn, yes, I do find it exciting when I come across those narrative moments when one senses an author borrowing from another author. Reading NW—reading any Zadie Smith, really, because she’s an excellent borrower—it was satisfying to see the way she (may have) put Saul Bellow to use. The beginning of NW is about Leah, a social worker who’s dissatisfied with this and also with that. One day, a neighborhood girl scams Leah out of forty quid. For the next ninety or so pages, Leah goes about her blah life, and occasionally spots the thief. Whenever she spots the thief her life becomes a little less blah. She wonders if she should confront the thief, what the thief would do if confronted, and has all these other tense thoughts that are fun to read. And it’s incredibly similar to the opening of Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet. On a bus one day, Sammler spots a pickpocket nipping a woman’s wallet. And he encounters the pickpocket several more times throughout the book’s beginning, and the story gets progressively tenser with each spotting.
Kathryn: From a craft standpoint that’s such a good device. With this little plot—running into the criminal again and again—you can fill in the rest of the novel’s world: character, setting, psychology. The reader may think she’s paying attention to the plot, but is at the same time absorbing the book’s other, deeper textures.
Max: Right. And I think it’s something reading writers or writing readers should feel encouraged to do—to rip off these little structural turns. Geoff Dyer, who’s great, was at the Walker kind of recently to talk about his book Zona. The book’s about a movie called Stalker. And he said the only reason he’d written the book was because he’d been commissioned to write a different book, about tennis. And the thought of writing this tennis book caused him such psychic pain that he couldn’t begin it, and he sought out whatever reason he could not to write it, and so he started writing about this movie, until he happened to have a book-length manuscript.
Kathryn: Which is the same—
Max: Right—the same as what Dyer says in Out of Sheer Rage, his “sober academic study of D.H. Lawrence.” He says he wrote it only to avoid writing a novel he was supposed to write.
Kathryn: “At first I had an overwhelming urge to write both these books, but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either…As soon as I thought about working on the novel I fell to thinking that it would be much more enjoyable to write my study of Lawrence. As soon as I started making notes on Lawrence I realized I was probably sabotaging forever any chance of writing my novel…Eventually I could bear it no longer, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my study of Lawrence because, whereas my novel was going to take me further into myself, the Lawrence book—a sober academic study of Lawrence—would have the opposite effect, of taking me out of myself.”
Max: You have the book open in front of you, I gather.
Kathryn: Bernhard, right. Dyer totally pinched this trope of wanting to write about one thing and then writing about another from Thomas Bernhard. In The Loser the narrator intends to write about the pianist Glenn Gould, but then writes of his friend’s suicide instead. In Concrete the narrator intends to write about the composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy, but instead writes about his sister. (“I spent about two hours thinking about the first sentence of my Mendelssohn study and at the same time listening for my sister’s return, which would put an end to my study before it was started.”)
Max: And Dyer, to go back to Dyer, acknowledges it. He says something, in Out of Sheer Rage about writing a “sub-Bernhardian rant.” (My copy is open in front of me, too.)
Max: The point is that it can be incredibly freeing, to borrow from other writers. I think that’s what I like about seeing writers borrow, is how freely they do it.
Kathryn: Because it can be so confining—the writer’s impulse to be original, to tell the story a new way. Maybe the limits of borrowing structure can free up the writers imagination, allowing for new language, emotion, and surprising narrative turns.
Max: So learning how to borrow, and how to do so responsibly, is, I would argue an essential skill for writers to acquire. Allowing yourself to borrow gives you so much more latitude; as Zadie Smith and Geoff Dyer (and also Jonathan Lethem) show, and talk about explicitly in their nonfiction, borrowing from someone else can be such a good place to start.
*See Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace.
Kathryn Savage and Max Ross are teaching “Master Mondays: Short Fiction” at the Loft this January.
Kathryn Savage teaches creative writing, plans and implements literary arts community outreach programming, and writes fiction, book reviews, and music journalism. She’s written for the Star Tribune, Ploughshares, The Village Voice, and City Pages.
Max Ross’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner,” the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Star Tribune, The Paris Review’s “Daily,” American Short Fiction, Five Chapters, and the New Orleans Review. He was a staff writer at The Rake, and is currently a contributing editor at Open Letters Monthly. He has taught creative writing at New York University, where he received an MFA in fiction.