Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Friday, July 11, 2008

On The Perils Of Not Being A Genius: A Grand Vizier Writes

‘Read, read, read and write, write, write’ is what experienced writers tend to say when their aspiring brethren ask for advice on how to become a writer, although the Grand Viz (right, in full-on smug-on-holiday mode) is of the opinion that if you need to be told to read a lot and write a lot, you’re probably not a writer by instinct. Anyhoo, the point being: submerge yourself in story, find out how the best do it, and then do what they do, only different and – hopefully, one day – better.
  Solid advice, for sure, and the most fun you can have while dressed to boot.
  But here’s the kicker – is there a danger of absorbing too much story?
  The Grand Viz has always loved books and movies, and over the last two decades has spent his professional life moving to a point where he now pretty much writes about movies, books and theatre for a living. Nice work if you can get it, certainly. But last Monday, for example, the Grand Viz attended two movie screenings (Meet Dave and Savage Grace), read a goodly portion of Benjamin Black’s new novella THE LEMUR, and saw Tom Murphy’s play The Sanctuary Lamp at the Samuel Beckett Centre in Trinity College.
  The movies, for very different reasons, were both poor; THE LEMUR is terrific fun; and the current production of The Sanctuary Lamp, which the Grand Viz had seen years ago, is excellent.
  The rest of the week was a little quieter from a story point of view, although it still involved watching the movies Baby Mama, City of Men and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (!), finishing off Fritjof Capra’s THE TAO OF PHYSICS, and reading Liam O’Flaherty’s THE ASSASSIN.
  All of which is wonderful, as the Grand Viz tends to spend most of his week steeped in story, absorbing almost by osmosis the hows and whys of the way others craft narrative, learning from their mistakes, taking note of where they got it right. It seems churlish to complain, especially as there’s a pleasing diversity in terms of story and discipline, and it all generates income for the ever-pressing ‘baby needs new shoes’ fund.
  But is there a danger of saturation? Is there a part of the brain that requires stories in order to be satisfied, and if fully sated, won’t need to create any stories of its own? Is there a danger of becoming imaginatively ham-strung, in the sense that you can begin to second-, third- and fourth-guess yourself, dismissing embryonic ideas as ‘already done’, or not potent enough to rise above the mass of stories clamouring for the public’s attention? And where, once you’ve established that the story you have in mind is fresh, unique and worth another person’s precious time, does the time come from, and enough blank mind-space, to put it all down on paper?
  And all this, of course, is susceptible to the Grand Viz’s sneaking suspicion that no story he could possibly contrive could compete with the interest he has in the narrative of his real life, particularly that of the most recent addition to his family, the endlessly fascinating Princess Lilyput (right).
  The GV does have stories he wants to write and / or redraft, although whether he needs to write them remains to be seen. Matters aren’t helped when he steps out of his reading-for-review routine, as he did last night, and embarks on one of his most self-indulgent pleasures, that of reading a master for the sheer enjoyment of it, in this case Lawrence Durrell’s MONSIEUR, the first of the Avignon ‘quincunx’. It’s at times like these that the Grand Viz begins to wonder if there’s any point in writing anything that doesn’t at least aspire to Durrell’s (for example) quality of writing and scale of ambition. With time so precious – his own time, and everyone else’s – and vast swathes of popular culture engaged in a dizzyingly fast race to the bottom, has the Grand Viz – or anyone else, for that matter – the right to write anything that isn’t, in a word, mind-blowing?
  Of the 41 books the Grand Viz has read so far this year, Cormac McCarthy, John McFetridge, Flann O’Brien, Salman Rushdie, Elmore Leonard, Adrian McKinty and Kurt Vonnegut excited him to the point where he resolved – each time – to abandon reviewing / blogging / his wife (if not his child) in order to get down and dirty with the blank page. Each time, happily enough for his wife, he resisted the temptation. Because he’s saturated, soma-like, with story? Because he simply doesn’t have the time? Or because he’s becoming acutely aware that he’s simply not good enough, and very probably never will be, to match and perhaps even better the stories he most likes to read?
  Questions, questions … Although, the Big Question is, given the outrageously poor time-to-benefit ratio involved in writing novels, at least at the Grand Viz’s level, particularly when said time could be much more profitably spent elsewhere – changing nappies, for example – why bother?
  This month there’s a final edit on the sequel to THE BIG O to polish off, which should be a hugely enjoyable experience, but once that’s out of the way, answers will have to be delivered. One thing is for sure – something’s gotta give, folks, and it won’t be Mrs Viz and Princess Lilyput. Stay tuned …


Gerard Brennan said...


Don't talk crazy!

Not good enough, my arse.


Dana King said...

You're not reading enough crap. I do a lot of reviews, and, even though a poorly written, unexceptional book may irritate for having cost several hours from my non-replenishable pool of Time left on Earth, it also tends to recharge the writing batteries. "This dreck got published; my WIP is not nearly so drecky."

Read Chandler, Leonard, mcBain, Connolly, and McCarthy for inspiration; read shit for motivation.

Kerrie said...

Interesting - did you notice that book cover for Laurence Durrell has only one final l?

Keith Rawson said...


I have a similar set of circumstances surrounding my life (However, I don't get to review books or movies for a living.) I have a wife, a two year old daughter-whose very soul the sun rises and sets behind-a house, a dog, friends, and not to mention a job that takes up 9 hours of my life every day, but I still make time to write. Yeah, sometimes it's only 200 or 300 words a day, but I still write, and guess what, I know I'm no Durrel, or Vonnegut, or Rushdie . I'm just some working class slob who likes writing about bed people doing bad things to other equally bad people. Do I financially benefit from any of this? not really. Does it take away time from my family? Same answer. You just need to find a balance between the book writing, the review writing, and the family. Besides, you'll never be able to quit. You might say you're going to like your average 3 pack a day smoker, but everyone around you knows that's it's just about impossible for you to give it up.
And another thing, Dec, when was the last time you started up a new book? I mean, you finished the sequel to the Big O before your darling daughter was born. So maybe you should start thinking about putting something serious down on paper. Maybe start plotting a stand alone?
But, whatever you decide is a decision for you and your family alone, and no matter what, best of luck.

Declan Burke said...

Cheers for the feedback, folks. Gerard? I'm not going to argue with your arse ... but I'm talking good-good, worth-a-rainforest good. Kerrie - that is indeed strange. In fact, it's one 'L' of mistake for the publishers to make. And thank you for offering me the opportunity to use that line. Dana - reading shit for motivation is indeed a valid way of wasting your time. I hear what you're saying ... Keith - interesting point about whether or not I've started anything new since Lily arrived ... I've redrafted some stuff, but not tried anything new. Maybe something new will exert its own gravity and make all the whiny stuff in the post redundant. We shall see ... Cheers, Dec

Colin said...

I'm probably one of the few writers who doesn't read other fiction a great deal. For one, if I've spent all day writing I don't want to read someone who's going to be better than me, or for that matter,worse than me; I'd much rather watch the footie. But mostly because if I am exposed to other writing, be it fiction, or film, or drama, I know I'm going to end up writing in that style, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.And also there's Gore Vidal's quote, which I pretty much apply to all other writers which goes something like - 'Every time a friend succeeds, a little piece of me dies' Which means that even though I'm doing fine, there's always someone I perceive to be hugely less talented selling cartloads more and winning acclaim. It's all very well being a cult, but it doesn't always pay the bills. At least I think they said cult. I'm 22 books into this stupid career, I hope they're getting better, but I think when I finally say to myself that's a really good book and I'm happy now is the time to hang up my spurs because I'll know I'm lying to myself. I suspect that being a writer is all about living in a constant state of disatisfaction. And then we put it all down on a page. Because very few writers have ever gone postal, they take it out on their readers.

Conduit said...

To pick up on Mr Bateman's point, discontent is a vital part of human nature. If we didn't have that predisposition to be dissatisfied with our lot, no matter how good it is, we would have no motivation to better ourselves. If it wasn't for discontent, we'd still be living in caves. Probably looking smug.

My favourite quote of all time is from the jazz guitarist, John McLaughlin. He said, "Anguish is the salt of my life. Without it, how would I know anything?"

If writing was easy, it wouldn't be worth doing. It's the sheer force of will required to write a novel that makes the achievement so much more significant, regardless of what happens to it afterwards.

Uriah Robinson said...

Salman here Dec. OK you blew my cover!
You are a good writer not as good as me I admit I still think Midnight Cowboy was my best book, but The Big O was great fun and I will enjoy the free review copy of the sequel.
I have expenses you know security and alimony to pay but I might even buy a copy that is how good you are!


Declan Burke said...

Colin - That 'constant state of dissatisfaction' is about right ... probably a very healthy thing, apart from that sneaky self-delusion it fosters, that you might actually get it 'right' next time. When there is, of course, no 'right' ... Stuart - 'If writing was easy, it wouldn't be worth doing.' I don't know about that, squire ... I wouldn't mind it coming easy once in a while. Or once, even. Lawrence Durrell used to write in blocks of 10,000 words, and if it wasn't working for him, he'd scrap the whole 10,000 and start again. But then, he was one of those instinctively elegant writers ... I'm more of a grub-it-out-one-word-at-a-time hacks. Still, it can't be Mills & Boon every day, right? Salman? This stalking will have to stop, sir. Any more of it and I'll hire a sky-writing plane to blaze your address above Teheran. You have been warned ... Oh, and ta for the big-up. The cheque's in the post. Cheers, Dec

adrian mckinty said...

Don't you think a lot of it is just fashion though? When he died Herman Melville was considered a failed travel writer- the New York Times even got his name wrong in its short obituary. Philip K Dick was seen as a hack until the day he died. Raymond Chandler got no respect and neither did Hammett until near the end. Hemingway spent his final fifteen years feeling like a failure (he won the Nobel Prize during this period.) Its not like science where we know that Einstein was a genius because he discovered new things. Writing is basically show biz, one day you're it, the next, mysteriously, you're not. One person's bad book...etc. One of my favourite books is JG Ballard's Crash, of which one reader's report called it "unpublishable rubbish." 100 years from now they'll probably think Cormac McCarthy and Rushie were mannered and baroque and - God save us - Dan Brown a prose master. You really cant predict the future. For example:

Kirk: (discussing colourful metaphors on the bus) You find it in all the contemporary literature of the period. The collective works of Jacqueline Suzanne, the novels of Harold Robbins...

Spock: Ah, the giants!

bookwitch said...

I have no interest in Durrell, however many Ls he has. Some of us quite like reading books on your level, which is rather higher up than you think. And you simply can't abandon us now!

We can take turns coming over and change Lily's nappies while you write, and if things get too desperate I'll put some shoes in the post.

bookwitch said...

And another thing - what makes you think you are not a genius? Can you prove it?

Declan Burke said...

Ms Witch - Being an evil genius and a writing genius are, sadly, two very different things. Although 'Colin' Bateman seems to combine the two nicely ... All shoes gladly accepted, by the way. Adrian - Is it all really just fashion, though? Even Shakespeare fell out of fashion, it's true ... but form is temporary, class is permanent. And good is good ... Cheers, Dec

Brent James said...

Great post, great conversation. Thanks for the candor, Dec.