In the weeks leading up to the National Book Awards ceremony, I found myself thinking of the Mantel quote often. There was something steadying about it. Those weeks were frankly very strange, and the quote flitted through my thoughts in the days that were the most surreal, the afternoons when I left my day job early—I’m a part-time administrative assistant in a cancer research lab—to go to photoshoots at national magazines or to be interviewed on NPR. I was thinking of the quote in the car on the way to the awards ceremony and also on the way home, a little disoriented, the evening already turning a little dreamlike in retrospect even though I’d just been there and was almost still in it, even though I was still in my gown. Where had I just been? It had been fun, and the finalist medal was a magnificent weight in the palm of my hand, but what did any of this have to do with writing?
Setting all questions of the subjectivity of literary awards aside, the practice of writing has absolutely nothing to do with awards ceremonies, or lists. (This is the sort of thing that should go without saying, but sometimes quotes are useful in reminding us of the obvious.) Several years ago, at a very different kind of public ceremony, I heard words that cut to the heart of what I try to do, daily, at my desk.
Some months after Norman Mailer died, my husband and I attended his memorial service at Carnegie Hall. We’d never met him, but his work had been important to both of us. My husband had read nearly everything he’d written. I’d read much less of his work, and had found some of it a little hit-or-miss, but The Executioner’s Song changed the way I wrote.
I’d written a novel by the time I read that book, although a year and a half would pass before a publisher bought it, and in that first novel I’d been trying for something more or less the opposite of The Executioner’s Song’s style, a kind of prettiness that in retrospect seemed too fussy. I read The Executioner’s Song and fell in love with the prose style. The sublime clarity of it, the unadorned spareness. In my next book, I decided, the prose style would be clearer, sharper, more precise. And then Mailer died soon after, and it seemed only right to pay my respects.
We sat in a high balcony in Carnegie Hall. Far below were the people who’d actually known him, the people who’d published him, his friends, his widow and his small army of children. One of the speakers—was it Sean Penn? I think it may have been, but the image is hazy—read a passage from a now-famous essay that Raymond Chandler published in the August 1944 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In that essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler begins by describing the night world of the private eye in noir fiction, the underworld in which the noir detective lives and works, and then he goes on to describe the protagonist himself, his place in that world:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.
The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.
The passage continues at length, but these are the words that stay with me: neither tarnished nor afraid. I had a passing familiarity with the quote when I heard those words at Carnegie Hall, but hearing them read aloud snapped them into focus. It seemed like a decent way to approach the writing of protagonists, and all these years later, the words stay with me. These are the words toward which I lean when I write. Writing believable characters is the aspect of fiction over which I agonize the most. To be entirely untarnished or entirely unafraid is to be inhuman, but Chandler’s words serve as guideposts: I’ve never written a protagonist who was so tarnished that it was impossible to sympathize with his plight, or so afraid that it was impossible for her to take action.