Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Charlotte Wood on writerly reading

Charlotte Wood reflects on books, footnotes and writers writing about writing. 
Right now I’m reading a lot of books about writers and the writing process, partly for my own interest, partly as a sort of well from which to draw discussion for both my Writer’s Room Interviews magazine project and some guided conversations in a salon I’m running for new writers.

One I’m rather taken with is called Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe – it’s in print but hard to get. It has short pieces by American writers on this topic, from David Foster Wallace to Amy Hempel to Norman Mailer and Ann Patchett. I find it fascinating, in what might be called a spiritual way, to have the writing compulsion elegantly analysed by so many fine writers.

Patrick White Letters, edited by David Marr, is a book of enduring comfort and writerly fascination to me.

One of the things I like so much about letters, as opposed to biographies, is the layer of intimate domestic detail that gathers in them. In these letters Patrick is always moaning to someone about the burden of being chief cook and bottle washer, but he clearly loved food and cooking, as do I. He and Manoly [Lascaris, White's beloved, lifelong partner] were always cooking dinner for large groups of people, and Patrick often turned down invitations to restaurants, instead suggesting dinner at his home. Little culinary details are always creeping into the letters, and I love them. The first time I finished the Letters I felt a little mournful and quiet with respect, as one does on finishing a Great Book.

Near the end of his life White repeatedly intimated that the routines of domesticity and household love, in which lay his life Manoly, were the only important things he had achieved. “My success in life is my discovery of Manoly,” he wrote. “Nothing is of importance besides that. Books – shit!”

Not true, obviously, but I can see why he said it. Domesticity and love, after all, were the great subject matter of so much of his work. And Manoly was a great man.

Patrick White
The book is edited with enormous wit and compassion by David Marr. Until this book I never realised footnotes could be so riveting*; Marr makes a whole other story ripple lightly, quietly and steadfastly beneath Patrick’s operatic solo. It is one of literature’s treasures for me and I’ll return to it often.

My other favourite book of literary letters is The Element of Lavishness, which ranges through 40 years of correspondence between writers William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Anyone I’ve given this book to has fallen in love with it – it’s funny, moving, shocking and beautiful.

Sylvia Townsend Warner
*The other book in which the footnotes are as entrancing as the ‘main’ work, if not more so, is Martin Amis’s memoir, Experience. I’m not a fan of the Amis persona as played out publicly, but this is an absolutely stunning, poignant, playful yet truthful piece of literature and I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood is an acclaimed Australian novelist and essayist, and she has just launched her own electronic literary magazine called The Writer's Room Interviews, which you can read more about (and subscribe to) here.
Charlotte is the author of, among many other books, Love & Hunger, which we reviewed in our first ever episode of the Universal Heart Book Club.

You will find the books that Charlotte suggests - and perhaps some of your own favourites - via the bookstore links (above right). Do use these links to support this Book Club - and know that we love to hear from you. (Easy to post comments using "Anonymous" if you don't have a google account.)

1 comment:

  1. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf are two more "great" names who reflected on writing in ways that are fascinating to all of us, readers and writers. In fact, for many early-mid 20th-century writers, letter and journal writing was key to craft. I also want to add that I met Sylvia Townsend Warner in 1978, the first year of The Women's Press - which I co-founded in London - when I republished her rather wonderfully odd novel, Lolly Willowes.