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The following is a transcript of moderator Dan Simmons asking
questions of writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald
regarding the craft and profession of writing. All quotes
by Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Fitzgerald are verbatim.
like to thank both Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Fitzgerald for joining
us here today. As you gentleman know, this site’s WRITING
WELL series and its ON WRITING WELL forum are designed for
those interested in good writing and for those readers and
writers interested in writing as both craft and as a possible
profession. I guess my first question is . . . how would you
gentleman define good writing?
Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story
up it will be true in the proportion to the amount of knowledge
of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when
he makes something up it is as it truly would be.
what about imagination?
is the one thing beside honesty that a good writer must have.
The more he learns from experience the more truly he can imagine.
If he gets so he can imagine truly enough people will think
that the things he relates all really happened and he is merely
the definition of good writing, what is the best training
for a writer?
EH:An unhappy childhood.
do you agree that all good biographies of truly great writers
will show an unhappy childhood?
There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There
couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any
you agree with Mr. Hemingway that an author’s childhood
is formative for his or her sensibilities through an entire
can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty,
after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are
weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five.
each of you to become a writer? Did you always know you were
a writer? Was there something in childhood – other than
the unhappy childhood itself that Mr. Hemingway alludes to
– that made you decide I am a writer?
EH:No, I always wanted
to be a writer.
another reason why I became an author.
I used to play football in a school and there was a coach who
didn’t like me for a damn. Well, our school was going
to play a game up on the Hudson, and I had been substituting
for our climax runner who had been hurt the week before. I had
a good day substituting for him so now that he was well and
had taken his old place I was moved into what might be called
the position of blocking back. I wasn’t adapted to it,
perhaps because there was less glory and less stimulation. It
was cold, too, and I don’t stand cold, so instead of doing
my job I got thinking how grey the skies were. When the coach
took me out of the game he said briefly:
“We simply can’t depend on you.”
The point is it inspired me to write a poem for the school
paper which made me as big a hit with my father as if I had
become a football hero. So when I went home that Christmas
vacation it was in my mind that if you weren’t able
to function in action you might at least be able to tell about
it because you felt the same intensity – it was a back
door way out of facing reality.
DS:So in a
sense, Mr. Fitzgerald, part of your earliest reason for writing
was to please your father. As you both got older – as
your careers progressed – whom did you end up writing
a time when a writer writes only for certain people and where
the opinion of the others is of little less than no importance
at all . . . .
EH:I believe that
basically you write for two people: yourself to try to make
it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then
you write for who you love whether she can read or write or
not and whether she is alive or dead.
age, in the 21st Century, there’s a lot of moaning about
the process of writing. Writers say that they’re glad
to have written but often say they hate the act of writing
itself. Do you think your writing is worth doing – as
an end in itself?
be very pleasant.
EH:It is. It is the
one altogether pleasant thing about it.
both agree that emotion plays a large part in both the act
of writing and choice of content for a writer?
it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only
yesterday, I must start out with an emotion – one that’s
been close to me and that I can understand.
EH: After a book I
am emotionally exhausted. If you are not you have not transferred
the emotion completely to the reader. Anyway that is the way
it works with me.
is the best way for a writer to transfer emotion “completely
to the reader?” How is that possible?
defined it more clearly, more vividly than any man of our
“My task is by the power of the written word to
make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all,
to make you see.”
are so limited in their scope and . . .
EH:All my life I’ve
looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first
time . . .
the ability to put into effect what is in your mind. There’s
no other definition of it.
EH:First, there must
be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there
must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there
must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience
as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking.
Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and
above all he must survive. Try to get all these in one person
and have him come through all the influences that press on
a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is
for him to survive and get his work done.
discipline, conscience, intelligence, and disinterestedness
– presumably in the sense that John Keats and Shakespeare
used that word – are all prerequisites to truly good
writing. But how does one define intelligence in this context?
FSF:. . . the
test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two
opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain
the ability to function.
almost exactly to what John Keats called “negative capability.”
How important is Keats . . . how important is poetry in general
to a novelist or writer of prose? Should novelists read poetry?
isn’t something easy to get started on by yourself.
You need, at the beginning, some enthusiast who also knows
his way around – John Peale Bishop performed that office
for me at Princeton. I had always dabbled in “verse”
but he made me see, in the course of a couple of months, the
difference between poetry and non-poetry . . .
Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside
you – like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist
– or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore around
which pedants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations.
“The Grecian Urn” is unbearably beautiful with
every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven’s
Ninth Symphony or it’s just something you don’t
understand. It is what it is because an extraordinary genius
paused at that point in history and touched it. I suppose
I’ve read it a hundred times. About the tenth time I
began to know what it was about, and caught the chime in it
and the exquisite inner mechanics. Likewise with “The
Nightingale” which I can never read through without
tears in my eyes; likewise the “Pot of Basil”
with its great stanzas about the two brothers,“Why were
they proud,etc.”; and “The Eve of St. Agnes,”
which has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not
excepting Shakespeare. And finally his three or four great
sonnets, “Bright Star” and the others.
Knowing those things very young and granted an ear,
one could scarcely ever afterwards be unable to distinguish
between gold and dross in what one read. In themselves those
eight poems are a scale of workmanship for anybody who wants
to know truly about words, their most utter value for evocation,
persuasion or charm. For awhile after you quit Keats all other
poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.
EH:[Turning to Fitzgerald]
Scott, you always took LITERATURE so solemnly. You never
understood that it was just writing as well as you can and
finishing what you start.
Someday I’m going to write about the series of calamities
that led up the awful state I was in at Christmas. A writer
not writing is practically a maniac within himself.
EH:[Still leaning toward
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from
the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before
you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt
use it – don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to
it as a scientist – but don’t think anything is
of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging
I was hauled to the hospital with a high fever and a tentative
diagnosis of typhoid. My affairs were in no better shape than
yours are . . . . There was a story I should have written
to pay my current debts, and I was haunted by the fact that
I hadn’t made a will . . . . I continued to rail against
my luck that just at this crucial moment I should have to
waste two weeks in bed, answering the baby talk of nurses
and getting nothing done at all. But three days after I was
discharged I had finished a story about a hospital.
The material was soaking in and I didn’t know
it. I was profoundly moved by fear, apprehension, worry, impatience;
every sense was acute, and that is the best way of accumulating
material for a story.
When you first start writing stories in the first person
if the stories are made so real that people believe them the
people reading them nearly always think the stories really
happened to you. That is natural because while you are making
them up you had to make them happen to the person who was
telling them. If you do this successfully enough you make
the person who is reading them believe that the things heppened
to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what
you are trying for which is to make the story so real beyond
any reality that it will become a part of the reader’s
experience and a part of his memory. There must be things
that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel
which without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience
so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.
to the importance of poetry for a moment, you have both recommended
to beginning writers the need to read good poets. Is there
a secret in learning to write quality prose fiction through
learning to read – and hear – good poetry?
EH:Nobody really knows
and understands and nobody has ever said the secret. The secret
is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest
of all things to do . . . .
DS:So if the
. . . .
EH:Then there is the
other secret. There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is
the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the
fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no
worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes
beyond is what you see beyond when you know.
suggesting that almost all of what most of us have learned
in college, even about both your gentlemen’s work, is
. . . .
EH:The most essential
gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.
This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have
FSF: You don’t
write because you want to say something; you write because
you’ve got something to say.
EH:My temptation is
always to write too much. I keep it under control so as not
to have to cut out crap and re-write. Guys who think they
are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no
to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do
is get a phony style and you can write any amount of words.
FSF: . . . I’m
afraid I haven’t quite reached the ruthless artistry
which would let me cut out an exquisite bit that had no place
in the context. I can cut out the almost exquisite, the adequate,
even the brilliant – but a true accuracy is, as you
say, still in the offing.
EH: If a writer of
prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit
things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing
truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly
as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement
of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above
water. A writer who omits things because he does not know
them only makes hollow places in the writing.
FSF: This is
a sort of postscript to my letter [to editor Max Perkins]
“I do think that you were doing specious reasoning
in part of your letter. That that Ernest has let himself repeat
here and there a phrase would be no possible justification
for my doing the same. Each of us has his virtues and one
of mine happens to be a great exactitude about my work. He
might be able to afford a lapse in that line where I wouldn’t
be and after all I have got to be the final judge of what
is appropriate in these cases. Max, to repeat, for the third
time, this is no way a question of laziness. It is a question
absolutely of self-preservation.”
As I said, the hardest thing, because time is short, is
for the writer to survive and get his work done.
[In TO HAVE AND TO HAVE NOT] I . . . threw
away about 100,000 words which was better than most of what
I left in. It is the most cut book in the world. That may
be part of what offends people. It does not have that handy
family package size character you get in Mr. Dickens.
FSF:What I cut
out of [The Great Gatsby] both physically and emotionally
would make another novel!
by accident that the Gettsyburg address was so short. The
laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight,
of mathematics, of physics.
you both saying that writing good prose fiction is similar
to a sculptor chipping away the stone that doesn’t belong
in the finished statue? Just eliminating everything but the
EH:The good parts
of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to
overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life –
and one is as good as the other.
FSF:Often I think
writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something
thinner, barer, more meager.
rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and
perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting
it out with charges.
I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier
to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying
for something better than you can do.
tend to be interested in the nuts and bolts of writing. Not
just the mechanics of the prose, but actual working habits.
Do you have any specific advice? For instance, how much do
you read over every day before you start to write?
EH:The best way is
to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you
go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before.
When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day
read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read
it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of
one piece. And remember to stop when you are still going good.
That keeps it moving instead of having it die whenever you
go and write yourself out. When you do that you find that
the next day your are pooped and can’t go on.
when you simply can’t go on?
EH:You just have to
go on when it is worst and most helpless – there is
only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight
on through to the end of the damn thing.
Do you have pretty much the same philosophy about
FSF:. . . sometimes
you can lick an especially hard problem by facing it always
the very first thing in the morning with the very freshest
part of your mind. This has so often worked with me that I
have an uncanny faith in it.
a master of the short story. Is there any special formula
you have for approaching the short story form?
best written in either one jump or three, according to the
length. The three-jump story should be done on three successive
days, then a day or so for revise and off she goes. This of
course is the ideal – in many stories one strikes a
snag that must be hacked at but, on the whole, stories that
drag along or are terribly difficult (I mean a difficulty
that comes from a poor conception and consequent faulty construction)
never flow quite as well in the reading.
the signs that a story or novel is on the wrong track?
write themselves – bad ones have to be written.
DS: Is there
any special preparation you have for writing short fiction?
begin by making notes. You may have to make notes for years
. . . When you think of something, when you recall something,
put it where it belongs. . . . Put it down when you think
of it. You may never recapture it quite as vividly the second
you apply the same approach to writing a full novel?
system Zolaesque . . . best buy a file. On the first page
of the file put down the outline of a novel of your times
enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by
itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central
point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan
backward and forward from that for another three months. Then
draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what
you have and set yourself as a schedule.
use notes or charts to keep track of your characters and their
backgrounds? Or do you just keep such things in your head?
FSF:My room is
covered with charts like it used to be for Tender is
the Night, telling the different movements of the characters
and their histories.
Did you have any special ritual or plan when you were
writing your early short stories in Paris? I know you used
to go to an empty room every day – furnished with just
a bare table and chair. Or you’d write at outside tables
at brasseries and coffee shops.
notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket
knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell
of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, were all you needed.
For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s
foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit
foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by
wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and
you knew your luck was still there.
do you think luck was to your writing in those early days
in Paris? Was the place part of that luck?
EH:It was in that
room too that I learned not to think about anything that I
was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started
again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working
on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people
and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I
would read so that I would not think about my work and make
myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had
worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was
a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in
Do you have any similar place-specific memories of
your early writing days?
am alone in the privacy of my faded blue room with sick cat,
the bare February branches waving at the window, an ironic
paper weight that says Business is Good . . . and my greatest
“Shall I run it out? Or shall I turn back?”
. . . Or:
“This is just bullheadedness. Better throw it
away and start over.”
The latter is one of the most difficult decisions that
an author must make. To make it philosophically, before he
has exhausted himself in a hundred-hour effort to resuscitate
a corpse or disentangle innumerable wet snarls, is a test
of whether or not he is really a professional. There are often
occasions when such a decision is doubly difficult. In the
last stages of a novel, for instance, where there is no question
of junking the whole, but when an entire favorite character
has to be hauled out by the heels, screeching, and dragging
half a dozen good scenes with him.
It is there that these confessions tie up with a general
problem as well as with those peculiar to a writer. The decision
as to when to quit, as to when one is merely floundering around
and causing other people trouble, has to be made frequently
in a lifetime.
now, as a professional as experienced as yourself . . . even
after producing a novel such as The Great Gatsby
. . . you sometimes have serious doubts about your writing?
FSF:. . . I get
a thing I call sentence-fever that must be like buck-fever
– it’s a sort of intense literary self-consciousness
that comes when I try to force myself. But the really awful
days aren’t when I think I can’t write. They’re
when I wonder whether any writing is worth while at all .
EH:You know that fiction,
prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing.
You do not have the reference, the old important reference.
You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation
to invent truer than things can be true. You have to take
what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also
have it seem normal and so that it can become a part of the
experience of the person who reads it.
a writer train himself to do that?
EH:Watch what happens
today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone
does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember
back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you
the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the
water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until
drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water
when he jumped. Remember what gave you the emotion: what the
action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down
making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the
same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.
EH:Then get in somebody
else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure
what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about
it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it
are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things
are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know
who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions
and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should
EH:Listen now. When
people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what
you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do
they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when
you come out know everything that you saw there and not only
that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly
what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.
When you’re in town stand outside the theater and see
how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or
motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always
think of other people.
curious . . . do you ever help each other with your writing
when things get difficult?
. . . the only effect I ever had on Ernest was to get
him in a receptive mood and say let’s cut everything
that goes before this. Then the pieces got mislaid and he
could never find the part that I said to cut out. And so he
published it without that and later we agreed that it was
a very wise cut. This is not literally true and I don’t
want it established as part of the Hemingway legend, but it’s
just about as far as one writer can go in helping another.
EH:You helped me with
the ending of one of my novels, Scott.
Years later when Ernest was writing Farewell to Arms
he was in doubt about the ending and marketed around to half
a dozen people for their advice. I worked like hell on the
idea and only succeeded in evolving a philosophy in his mind
utterly contrary to everything that he thought an ending should
be, and it later convinced me that he was right and made me
end Tender is the Night on a fade-away instead of
writers, living and dead, help you through their books? I’ve
been criticized a bit in this Writing Well series because
I keep arguing that to learn to write well all beginning writers
need not only to read the great authors but to study
their styles. Am I off base with this suggestion?
ever . . . read Pere Goriot or Crime and Punishment
or even A Doll’s House or St. Matthew
or Sons and Lovers? A good style simply doesn’t
form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every
year. Or rather it forms but, instead of being a subconscious
amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection
of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese.
would you two suggest that all prospective writers . . . absorb?
this doesn’t sound over-confident. Am a man without
any ambition, except to be champion of the world. I wouldn’t
fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would
knock my ears off. The Dr. had terrific wind and could go
on forever and then some. But I would take him on for six
and he would never hit me and would knock the shit out of
him and maybe knock him out. He is easy to hit. But boy how
he can hit. If I can live to 60 I can beat him. (MAYBE)
For your information I started out trying to beat dead
writers that I knew how good they were. (Excuse the vernacular)
I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn’t too hard.
Tried for Mr. Maupassant (won’t concede him the de)
and it took four of the best stories to beat him. He’s
beaten and if he was around he would know it. Then I tried
for another guy (am getting embarrassed or embare-assed now
from bragging; or stating) and I think I fought a draw with
him. This other dead character.
Mr. Henry James I would just thumb him once the first
time he grabbed and then hit him once where he had no balls
and ask the referee to stop it.
There are some guys nobody could ever beat like Mr.
Shakespeare (the Champion) and Mr. Anonymous. But would be
glad any time, if in training, to go twenty with Mr. Cervantes
in his own home town (Clecala de Henares) and beat the shit
out of him. Although Mr. C. very smart and would be learning
all the time and would probably beat you in a return match.
The third fight people would pay to see . . .
In the big book I hope to take Mr. Melville and Mr.
Dostoevsky, they are coupled as a stable entry, and throw
lots of mud in their faces because the track isn’t fast.
But you can only run so many of those kind of races. They
take it out of you.
Know this sounds like bragging but Jeezoo Chrise you
have to have confidence to be a champion and that is the only
thing I ever wished to be.
rather have written Conrad’s Nostromo than
any other novel. First, because I think it is the greatest
novel since Vanity Fair (possibly excluding Madame
Bovary), but chiefly because Nostromo, the man, intrigues
me so much . . . I would rather have dragged his soul from
behind his astounding and inarticulate presence than written
any other novel in the world.
EH:It is fashionable
among my friends to disparage him [Joseph Conrad]. It is even
necessary. Living in a world of literary politics where one
wrong opinion often proves fatal, one writes carefully . .
It is agreed by most of the people I know that Conrad
is a bad writer, just as it is agreed that T.S. Eliot is a
good writer. If I knew that by grinding Mr. Eliot into a find
dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s
grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed
at the forced return, and commence writing I would leave for
London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.
FSF:So many writers,
Conrad for instance, have been aided by being brought up in
a métier utterly unrelated to literature. It gives
an abundance of material and, more important, an attitude
from which to view the world. So much writing nowadays suffers
both from lack of an attitude and from sheer lack of any material,
save what is accumulated in a purely social life. The world,
as a rule, does not live on beaches and in country clubs.
age, movies are mostly written by 30-something children who’ve
apparently had no life other than watching other movies and
writing is taught mostly by college professors who have published
little or nothing.
EH:I don’t know
about that. I never went to college. If any sonofabitch could
write he wouldn’t have to teach writing in college.
were talking about books to read to learn style and writers,
dead and alive, whom any would-be writer should know and study
. . .
FSF: . . . a
real grasp of Blake, Keats, etc., will bring you something
you haven’t dreamed of. And it should come now.
would you recommend to read to learn . . . in order to “absorb,”
which I guess means “synthesize,” . . . a sense
of style? And how far should a writer go in borrowing other
FSF: By style
I mean color . . . I want to be able to do anything with words
handle slashing, flaming descriptions like Wells, and use
the paradox with the clarity of Samuel Butler, the breadth
of Bernard Shaw and the wit of Oscar Wilde, I want do the
wide sultry heavens of Conrad, the rolled-gold sundowns and
crazy-quilt skies of Hichens and Kipling as well as the pastel
dawns and twilights of Chesterton. All that is by way of example.
As a matter of fact I am a professional literary thief, hot
after the best methods of every writer in my generation.
EH:[nods and grunts]
Remember to get weather in your god damned book –
weather is very important.
you agree that absorbing style from other writers is important?
EH:I think you should
learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that
has anything to teach you.
DS: So what
books do you think a writer has to read?
EH:He should read
everything so he knows what he has to beat.
have read everything.
EH:I don’t say
what he can. I say what he should. Of course he can’t.
books are necessary?
EH:He should have
read War and Peace and Anna Karenina by
Tolstoi, Midshipman Easy, Frank Mildmay
and Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Madame
Bovary and L’education Sentimentale by
Flaubert, Buddenbooks by Thomas Mann, Joyce’s
Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses,
Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews by Fielding,
Le Rouge et Le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme
by Stendahl, The Brothers Karamazov and any two
other Dostoevskis, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain,
The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel by Stephen
Crane, Hail and Farewell by George Moore, Yeats’s Autobiographies,
all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of Turgenev,
Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson, Henry James’s
short stories, especially Madame de Mauves and The
Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The American
write them down that fast. How many more are there?
you the rest another day. There are about three times that
a writer have read all of those?
EH:All of those and
plenty more. Otherwise he doesn’t know what he has to
you mean “has to beat?”
EH:Listen. There is
no use writing anything that has been written before unless
you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write
what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at
what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going
to compete with dead men . . . .
all the good writers might discourage you.
EH:Then you ought
to be discouraged . . . .
does reading great writing ever discourage you? Are there
any of your contemporaries who have had a real impact on you?
FSF:I read Ernest’s
In Our Time with the most breathless unwilling interest
I have experienced since Conrad first bent my reluctant eyes
upon the sea.
other good American writers?EH:The
good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain.
That’s not the order they’re good in. There is
no order for good writers.
All modern American literature comes from one book by
Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it
you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys.
That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s
the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes
from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing
as good since.
Finn took the first journey back. He was the first
to look back at the republic from the perspective of the west.
His eyes were the first eyes that ever looked at us objectively
that were not eyes from overseas. There were mountains at
the frontier but he wanted more than mountains to look at
with his restless eyes – he wanted to find out about
men and how they lived together. And because he turned back
we have him forever.
characters? How does one create them? How can we make them
not just seem real but be real to the reader?
EH:[turning to Fitzgerald]
I liked and I didn’t like Tender is the Night.
It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and
Gerald . . . Then you started fooling with them, making them
come from things they didn’t come from, changing them
into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you
take real people and write about them you cannot give them
other parents than what they have (they are made by their
parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do
anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda
or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep
them the same and you can only make them do what they would
do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the
finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not
That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our
best – make it all up – but make it up so truly
that later it will happen that way.
Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts
and futures that produced not people but damned marvelously
faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody
can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to –
the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly
no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly
compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and
Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would
not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.
[ Silence for a long moment]
In my theory, utterly opposite to Ernest’s, about
fiction i.e., that it takes half a dozen people to make a
synthesis strong enough to create a fiction character –
in that theory, or rather in despite of it, I used [Sara and
Gerald] again and again in Tender is the Night:
“Her face was hard and lovely and pitiful”
“He had been heavy, belly-frightened
with love of her for years”
-- in those and in a hundred other places I tried to
evoke not Sara but the effect she produces on other men –
the echoes and reverberations . . .
EH:. . . you ought
to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people’s
a little confused. Mr. Hemingway, you’re very adamant
about keeping characters in novels and stories true to their
. . . real-life templates . . . but certainly there’s
a role for synthesis and imagination in the creation of literary
EH:When writing a
novel a writer should create people; people not characters.
A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live
there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible
that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel.
If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of
music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then
they should talk of those subjects in the model. If they do
not talk of those subjects and the writer makes them talk
of them he is a faker, and if he talks about them himself
to show how much he knows then he is showing off. No matter
how good a phrase or a simile he may have if he puts it in
where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he
is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not
interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. For a writer
to put his own intellectual musings, which he might sell for
a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed
characters which are more remunerative when issued as people
in a novel is good economics, perhaps, but does not make literature.
People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters,
must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience,
from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from
all there is of him. If he ever has luck as well as seriousness
and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension
and they will last a long time.
saying that a novelist shouldn’t have his or her characters
– or I should say the people in his or her novels –
be mere mouthpieces. That characters talking about things
that the author doesn’t naturally know about is fakery
– a form of showing off. But doesn’t that ignore
the role of research in writing? Shouldn’t
some of an author’s characters know more than the author?
Shouldn’t the author be required to learn new things
and know what his characters should know?
EH:A good writer should
know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not.
A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But
he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to
learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other
men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence
to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.
There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and
time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their
acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it
takes a man’s life to know them the little new that
each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage
he has to leave. Every novel which is truly written contributes
to the total knowledge which is there at the disposal of the
next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always,
a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand
and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what
he must, in turn, take his departure from.
Do you agree?
FSF:If I knew
anything I’d be the best writer in America.
admitted in some of your non-fiction writings about your past
that you knew you were intelligent, knew you had an unusually
powerful command of facts and the ability to express them
in words, and often were disliked because of it.
likes a mind quicker than their own and one more capable
of getting its operation into words. It is practically something
to conceal. The history of men’s minds has been the
concealing of them, until men cry out for intelligence,
and the thing has to be brought into use . . . .
The mouth tight, and the teeth and lips together are
a hard thing, perhaps one of the hardest stunts in the world,
but not a waste of time, because most of the great things
you learn in life are in periods of enforced silence.
In Jay Gatsby you’ve created one of the most
enigmatic and enduring characters in our literature. Did you
have a clear picture of Gatsby when you started the novel?
FSF:I myself didn’t
know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you
felt it. If If I’d known and kept it from you you’d
have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest.
This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll
understand . . . .
Start out with an individual and you find that you have
created a type – start out with a type and you find
that you have created nothing.
of types . . . in our age, in our time, more and more writers
attain a sort of unassailable high ground by speaking for
– or claiming they speak for – various groups.
What we call “communities.” The African-American
community, the gay and lesbian community, the addicted community,
the abused children community . . . the list goes on and on.
There also seems to be a deeper, or at least wider, political
dimension to being a novelist these days. Some would suggest
that to be considered a serious novelist, one must be progressive
. . . that is, left-wing in one’s politics.
Both of your gentlemen’s books are frequently
taught in universities these days largely in terms of their
political content: The Great Gatsby as a critique
of capitalism, for instance, or To Have and To Have Not
as an indictment of the class system that capitalism inevitably
brings about. Mr. Hemingway, you were active, both in person
and in your fiction, in some of the great political dialogues
of your day . . . the Spanish Civil War, for instance . .
. and you contributed scathing articles to such left-wing
magazines such as The New Masses. It certainly caught
the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
Do you think that a writer has an obligation to
speak out for social justice?
EH:As for your hoping
the Leftward Swing etc has a very definite significance for
me that is so much horseshit. I do not follow the fashions
in politics, letters, religion etc. If the boys swing to the
left in literature you may make a small bet the next swing
will be to the right and some of the same yellow bastards
will swing both ways. There is no left and right in writing.
There is only good and bad writing . . .
Now they want you to swallow communism as though it
were an elder Boys Y.M.C.A. conference or as though we were
all patriots together.
I’m no goddamned patriot nor will I swing to left
Would as soon machine gun left, right, or center any
political bastards who do not work for a living – anybody
who makes a living by politics or not working.
your writing you often stood up for the little man, the dispossessed,
the persons marginalized in a capitalist socie . . .
EH:. . . don’t
let them suck you in to start writing about the proletariat,
if you don’t come from the proletariat, just to please
the recently politically enlightened critics. In a little
while these critics will be something else. I’ve seen
them be a lot of things and none of them was pretty. Write
about what you know and write truly and tell them all where
they can place it . . . . Books should be about the people
you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you
study up about. If you write them truly they will have all
the economic implications a book can hold.
In the meantime, since it is Christmas, if you want
to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing
about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment
in Samarra by John O’Hara.
Then when you have more time read another book called
War and Peace by Tolstoi and see how you will have
to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly
thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it,
because they are no longer either true or important, if they
ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting
and important the people and the action are. Do not let them
deceive you about what a book should be because of what is
in fashion now.
do you think novelists should be especially sensitive to the
social issues and political consensuses of their day?
not written, or at least begun, with the idea of making an
ultimate philosophical system – you tried to atone for
your lack of confidence by a lack of humility before the form.
don’t see a novel as a mechanism for bringing about
. . . I got from Conrad’s preface to The Nigger
of the Narcissus, that the purpose of a work of fiction
is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s
mind as differing from, say, the purpose of oratory or philosophy
which respectively leave people in a fighting or thoughtful
EH:Now a writer can
make himself a nice career while he is alive by espousing
a political cause, working for it, making a profession of
believing in it, and if it wins he will be very well placed.
All politics is a matter of working hard without reward, or
with a living wage for a time, in the hope of booty later
. . . .
But none of this will help the writer as a writer unless
he finds something new to add to human knowledge while he
is writing. Otherwise he will stink like any other writer
when they bury him; except, since he has had political affiliations,
they will send more flowers at the time and later he will
stink a little more.
studies of 20th Century literature, many critics and academics
tend to group you two – Hemingway and Fitzgerald –
with Thomas Wolfe in terms of your contribution to Modernism.
resemblance there is between we three as writers is the attempt
that crops up in our fiction from time to time to recapture
the exact feel of a moment in time and space, exemplified
by people rather than by things – that is, an attempt
at what Wordsworth was trying to do rather than what Keats
did with such magnificent ease, an attempt at a mature memory
of a deep experience.
EH:I think Tom was
only truly good about his home town and there he was
wonderful and unsurpassable. The other stuff is usually
first what are the things, the actual, concrete things that
harm a writer?
drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink,
money and ambition . . . I said profoundly.
of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming
urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping
me from it. . . .
It has become increasingly plain to me that the very
excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions
and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor.
A short story can be written on a bottle, but for a novel
you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole
pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows
as Ernest did in A Farewell to Arms. If a mind is slowed up
ever so little it lives in the individual part of a book rather
than in a book as a whole; memory is dulled. I would give
anything if I hadn’t had to write Part III of Tender
is the Night entirely on stimulant. If I had one more crack
at it cold sober I believe it might have made a great difference.
Even Ernest commented on sections that were needlessly included
and as an artist he is as near as I know for a final reference.
we should probably draw this to a close soon. You’ve
been very generous with your time. Is there any topic for
the readers of the Writing Well forum that we haven’t
all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences.
They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem
in English is Keats’ ‘Eve of Saint Agnes.”
A line like “The hare limped trembling through
the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through
it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem
with its movement – the limping, trembling and freezing
is going on before your own eyes.
EH:You know, Scott’s
talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the
dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood
it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when
it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his
damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to
think and could not fly any more because the love of flight
was gone and he could remember when it had been effortless.
would you like to reply to that?
FSF:Did you ever
know a writer to calmly take a just criticism and shut up?
After all . . . I am a plodder. One time I had a talk
with Ernest Hemingway and I told him, against all the logic
that was then current, that I was the tortoise and he was
the hare, and that’s the truth of the matter, that everything
that I have ever attained has been through long and persistent
struggle while it is Ernest who has a touch of genius which
enables him to bring off extraordinary things with facility.
I have no facility. I have a facility for being cheap., if
I wanted to indulge that . . . but when I decided to be a
serious man, I tried to struggle over every point until I
have made myself into a slow-moving behemoth . . ., and so
there I am for the rest of my life.
of being serious men . . . my last question. Do you think
more about critics in your time or about future generations
of readers and how posterity will treat your work?
I only think about writing truly. Posterity can take care
of herself . . .
ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics
of the next, and the schoolmasters ever afterward.
EH:You must be prepared
to work always without applause. When you are excited about
something is when the first draft is done. But no one can
see it until you have gone over it again and again until you
have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to
the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words,
sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so
many times have you re-read them. By the time the book comes
out you will have started something else and it is all behind
you and you do not want to hear about it. But you do, you
read it in covers and you see all the places that now you
can do nothing about. All the critics who could not make their
reputations by discovering you are hoping to make them by
predicting hopefully your approaching impotence, failure and
general drying up of natural juices. Not a one will wish you
luck or hope that you will keep on writing unless you have
political affiliations in which case these will rally around
and speak of you and Homer, Balzac, Zola and Link Steffens.
You are just as well off without these reviews. Finally, in
some other place, some other time, when you can’t work
and feel like hell you will pick up the book and look at it
and start to read and go on and in a little while say to your
wife, “Why this stuff is bloody marvelous.”
And she will say, “Darling, I always told you
it was.” Or maybe she doesn’t hear you and says,“What
did you say?” and you do not repeat the remark.
But if the book is good, is about something that you know,
and is truly written and reading it over you see that this
is so you can let the boys yip and the noise will have that
pleasant sound coyotes make on a very cold night when they
are out in the snow and you are in your own cabin that you
have built or paid for with your work.
(Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to
this web site interested in discussing writing issues can
talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand
in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there
from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments
might serve – at least partially – as a template
for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the
usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece
and where can I get it published?”)
[Dan’s note: Acknowledgment to Ernest Hemingway
on Writing and F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing
both edited by Larry W. Phillips (who in turn acknowledges
the help of Michael Pietsch, formerly of Charles Scribner’s
Sons, now of Little, Brown, with whom I had a very enjoyable
lunch last week). Sources for Mr. Hemingway’s comments
include By Line: Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon;
Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters; Green Hills of Africa,
and A Moveable Feast. Sources for Mr. Fitzgerald’s
comments include Afternoon of an Author, The Beautiful
and Damned, and The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Other sources include The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald,
As Ever, Scott Fitz edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli,
Beloved Infidel by Sheila Graham, and F. Scott
Fitzgerald in His Own Time edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli.]
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