For example: In Volume Three of the trilogy I’m completing, there’s a good guy and a bad guy. I thought of them as “good” and “bad.” But when I went back for the latest rewrite, I was surprised by how appealing the bad guy was. The idea part of me thought, “Well, maybe I need to make him more of a scumbag.” But the novelist part of me said, “No. Ambiguity is always good.”
So you learn to expect the unexpected, and make allowances for it. There’s a constant back and forth between what you planned and what you didn’t plan, and how you are going to reconcile the two. I guess that’s what drafts are for—negotiating how much plan to preserve, how much newness to let in.
I think all novel writing, and all art, is a form of play—and it’s the unexpected that gives it the playful aspect, while ideas give it the serious aspect. When the unexpected crops up, that’s like playing a game where your body has to catch the ball you didn’t even realize a moment ago was heading in your direction. So, I like this aspect of play, I think it’s wonderful—and makes it all worth doing.
When I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I remember opening the door to my friend’s office and looking inside. Over her desk, above her typewriter, she’d tacked up a phrase: NOBODY ASKED YOU TO WRITE THAT NOVEL. I knew right away this was going to be an important idea for me. The line reminded me that writing was a voluntary activity. I could always stop. I could always go on. And since no one’s asking you do it, I’ve always seen writing as an exercise of freedom, rather than an exercise of obligation. Even when it came to be that writing was my income, it still seemed like an exercise of freedom. Yes, writing is my job—but I could always stop and do something else. Once writing becomes an exercise of freedom, it’s filled with energy.
I remember when I proposed A Thousand Acres to my agent, she said, “Are you kidding me? No one wants to read a novel about farming.” But no one was going to stop me. “We’ll see,” I said, and I just wrote it. That’s been the case of all my books, successful or not successful. I wrote the books I wanted to write. I know I’ve been lucky to be able to write this way.
To me as a reader, this greatest thing about the novel—I start sentences this way all time, but I always say a different thing—is that it gives access to the mind of the writer. Our Mutual Friend is a perfect example of this: You have access to the mind of this guy, Charles Dickens. Prolonged access, 880 pages of access. There is no intermediary between you and this guy’s mind. There are no actors, there’s no stage production. To read a book is an act of humanity. It’s an act of connection. And it’s also an act of freedom—at any point, I could say, I’m done with Our Mutual Friend, I’m moving on to Anthony Trollope. As long as you’re reading, you’re there voluntarily. To me, that’s the essence of the novel: accessing the mind of another human being in a way that combines freedom with intimacy. This is a rare thing. You don’t get it through an interview, you don’t get that through relationships—other people can always withhold information from you. You don’t get this kind of access in any other art—poetry, maybe, but the contact isn’t as prolonged. I find it perennially alluring. I’ve been at this for years and years and yet, and yet this voluntary act of connection still fascinates me in my reading and my writing.