IFoA: Word. Sentence. Novel.

Paolo Giordano (The Solitude of Prime Numbers), Alexander MacLeod (Light Lifting), and Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) took to the stage on Sunday afternoon to talk about their creative processes and the art of the written word. The round table, hosted by author Atanas Sileika and titled “Word. Sentence. Novel.”, took a lot of left turns away from the subject at hand to explore the author as a public figure, the sales-numbers-world versus the words world, and how different the European literary scene is from the North American one.

The panelists are possible breakthrough literary superstars, with Giordano’s first novel selling over a million copies worldwide, MacLeod’s first short story collection currently short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller prize, and Marlantes’ 30-year effort paying off with impressive sales, but their clear discomfort with being on-stage affected the enjoyment of the session. Marlantes gave it all he had, with thoughtful and modest sound bites. MacLeod and Giordano, on the other hand, made an effort, but everything from their unkempt appearances (which, on many, can be charmingly disheveled, but here just seemed off-putting) to their slouching posture screamed “I’m uncomfortable on this stage.”

Which they all readily admitted. And that’s fine. After all, not all authors were born to love the spotlight.

All three authors talked about their work processes, each being very different. Since Giordano uses writing as an escape from his day job as a particle physics researcher, he writes when he gets inspiration. “I wanted to deal with something more alive,” he admitted. “I love physics. It is fascinating and amazing, but it is all dead things. Dead things I cannot see.”

Since writing is largely a creative escape for Giodano, he writes in bunches and doesn’t force the words out if they aren’t there. MacLeod, who teaches at St. Mary’s University in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and has a young child, says he writes whenever he can, but his busy schedule doesn’t allow for a regular writing schedule.

Marlantes has a different approach. He forces himself to write a set amount of words every day, even if the inspiration isn’t there. He’d much rather write something and have to throw it out at the end of the week, rather than not write at all. He thinks there are about 17,000 pages of Matterhorn that never left his basement office.

A large part of the discussion focused on the art of turning words into images, or rather, images into words. All three authors argued that they start with pictures first and that as a writer, it was their job to find the words that describe the images in their head. Marlantes reveals that the first chapter of Matterhorn was rewritten about 20 times. The  rest of the novel was complete before he found the right image to open the book with.

The words themselves are more important to MacLeod, but the image and the language work together: “I work on the image and try to find the language that creates that image.” MacLeod told the story of a time he was stuck on an image of a fried egg, and couldn’t write around it until he thought of the word “supper” as a way in. “For me, ‘supper’ made the image,” he said. “‘He’s having a fried for supper.’ This word alone set the scene and created plot. Then I could write about the egg.”

Giordano sees scenes and turns them into stories. He likes playing with words and strives to have crisp, clean prose where a single intonation can turn the entire sentence, paragraph, or chapter on its head. He was struck by how the scenes and images he created translated into English (The Solitude of Prime Numbers was originally written in Italian) because the language is so different. “All the words are different, but all the images are there,” he marveled. (By the way, IFoA was the first time Giordano had ever read from his novel in English.)

As always (or at least it seems to be always), the panel ended with a discussion about advice for young writers, and the advice was the same as we’ve heard at ever other panel: practice makes perfect. “Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write,” Marlantes said. “Voice only comes after hours and hours of writing crap. Your writing will finally become you, but it takes a lot of work.”

That feeling is all too familiar. Sitting through this panel took work, but the result was well worth it.