The past decade gave us everything from viral K-pop hits and ice bucket challenges to the first photo of a black hole. The 2010s also saw many interesting moments in writing and publishing. Read 10 insights from authors’ interviews, conversations and tributes from the past decade:
1. Write from the magma
2010 saw the publishing of many critically acclaimed novels, including Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
In one interview, Franzen shared his thoughts on the necessity of writing from a real place:
If I’m just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that’s still hot in me, something that’s distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress…Jonathan Franzen, interviewed for NPR – podcast available here.
You are still armored in your anger. Particularly in the new book, I tried to let go of that. […] I went to the deeper, more upsetting things, which were much harder to get onto the page but whose presence I could feel … like some pool of magma beneath the crust.
2. Make your books objects worth keeping
2011 was a year of many great books. Including Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It was the year a study found children’s literature had a big gender imbalance, too, with too few books having girls and women as protagonists.
In 2011, British author Julian Barnes won the Man Booker prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. Barnes had interesting words on why we keep buying physical books:
Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the eBook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.Julian Barnes, quoted in ‘Booker prize 2011: Julian Barnes triumphs at last’, available here.
Barnes’ words apply to indie authors in self-publishing, too. Invest in a professional cover that resonates with the contents of your story. This is vital to stand out in the crowded publishing marketplace.
3. Mix the inspiration sources you want
2012 was a year of many interesting literary events. This year, copyright on James Joyce’s works expired, for example.
It was also a year of many great books’ publication – Alice Munro’s short story collection Dear Life, for example. Or Hilary Mantel’s historical epic Bring up the Bodies. It was also a year many beloved authors passed, from children’s author Maurice Sendak to poet Adrienne Rich and science-fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury.
When Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize in 2012, critics debated its ‘literary’ merits. Kira Cochrane of The Guardian put it thus:
One of Miller’s ex-boyfriends described her book as “Homeric fan fiction”, which is much too harsh – but you can see what he meant. The author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in the New York Times that the book “has the head of a young adult novel, the body of the Iliad, and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland”. But on the whole, the book has had excellent reviews, and it is the more soapy qualities that seem likely to make it a major hit. It’s a narrative with appeal to young and old, men and women, readers of both commercial and literary fiction. Even before it was announced as the winner, it was the biggest-selling book on this year’s shortlist.Kira Cochrane, in ‘The Saturday interview: Madeline Miller, Orange prize winner’, available here.
This reminds us of something useful: Flout genre conventions. Draw inspiration from Classics for soapy romance sagas, if you want. Tell the story you want to tell and cross any boundaries between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ you please. If it’s a good story, well told, it will find its audience.
4. Write the untold story
2013 was a great year in books, seeing releases by leading authors such as Margaret Atwood (MaddAddam), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah) and Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch). In 2013, an annual Orwell day was instituted, and it was the year World Book Day became a UNESCO-designated event promoting reading and literacy.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received much praise for her novel Americanah.
Speaking to NPR about the novel, Adichie spoke of writing the less told story:
I think the immigration story that we are very familiar with, when it concerns Africa, is the story of, you know, the person who’s fleeing war or poverty, and I wanted to write about a different kind of immigration, which is the kind that I’m familiar with, which is of middle-class people who are not fleeing burned villages, and who you know had ostensibly privileged lives, but who are seeking what I like to think of as choice — who want more, who think that somehow over there is more exciting, is better.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, interviewed by NPR, available here.
Adichie shares something vital. There’s power in telling stories that expand beyond a reductive, over-simplified version of events.
5. Write with compassion
One of the great values of writing and reading is imaginative empathy. The benefit of imagining others’ lives. Walking in myriad characters’ shoes.
2014 was a year in which the loss of great writers dominated publishing news. Titans such as author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou passed, as well as Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and Gabriel García Márquez.
Esteemed author Alice Walker’s touching tribute in The Guardian celebrates the compassionate value of storytelling:
Maya Angelou was an indomitable spirit of great generosity, kindness, and love. Her work, both written and spoken, has inspired, and actually helped, the lives of millions. When I think of tribute, I envision Maya as a kind of General of Compassion, offering an army of words of encouragement. She was special, she was rare, she was more beautiful than perhaps even she realised, because she was, among other things, such an artist, that she could not only create worlds on paper, or in a listener’s imagination, but she also managed, over and over again in her long life, to create and recreate herself.Alice Walker, ‘Maya Angelou was more beautiful than she realised’, in The Gaurdian, available here.
6. Use all writing as training
2015 was an interesting year in publishing. It saw digital/print crossovers, such as Iain Pears’ novel Arcadia. In its digital form, it included an app that allowed readers to switch between narratives.
2015 saw many powerful novels, including Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Paula Hawkins’ smash success thriller, The Girl on the Train.
Hawkins described in an interview the way writing ‘chick lit’ under an alias helped her develop her craft:
The first Amy Silver book was commissioned, and they were not books that came completely from me. They weren’t necessarily the sort of books I read, and although I enjoyed doing them very much, and they were great training, I never felt completely comfortable in that genre. And as I wrote the books, they got darker and darker, and there was more and more tragedy in them. When the fourth Amy Silver didn’t do very well at all, I decided, well, I’ve either got to make a go of this properly, and do what I really want to do, or give it up and get a new career. It did feel a bit like the last chance to get fiction right.Paula Hawkins, interviewed by Alex Clark for The Guardian, available here.
7. Give your story the time it needs
2016 was a year of plenty of crossovers. Bob Dylan won the Nobel for Literature (which raised a few eyebrows). Hundreds of US writers (including Stephen King) signed a letter that urged voters not to vote for Donald Trump.
Top books of 2016 included Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Michael Chabon’s Moonglow.
In an interview for NPR, Whitehead described his initial reluctance to venture into the painful subject matter of slavery:
Actually, I was pretty reluctant to immerse myself into that history. It took 16 years for me to finish the book. I first had the idea in the year 2000, and I was finishing up a long book called “John Henry Days,” which had a lot of research. And I was just sort of, you know, getting up from a nap or something (laughter) and thought, you know, what if the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad?Colson Whitehead, interviewed by NPR, transcript available here.
This is a good reminder to give your story the time it needs. It doesn’t matter whether it takes six months or 16 years.
8. Create worlds, big and small
2017 was a year of interesting events. The late Sir Terry Pratchett had unfinished works on a hard drive crushed by a steamroller on his instruction. Acclaimed author Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel for Literature.
In an interview on winning the Nobel, Ishiguro shared fascinating thoughts about how we live in both small and big worlds at the same time:
… One of the things that’s interested me always is how we live in small worlds and big worlds at the same time, that we have a personal arena in which we have to try and find fulfillment and love. But that inevitably intersects with a larger world, where politics, or even dystopian universes, can prevail. So I think I’ve always been interested in that. We live in small worlds and big worlds at the same time and we can’t, you know, forget one or the other.Haruki Murakami, interviewed by Adam Smith, available here.
9. Don’t feed self-doubt with fear
The best books of 2018 included Tommy Orange’s There There, Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight and former US First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.
In a sit-down with Obama, Oprah Winfrey asked Obama to discuss a line from her memoir. The line is:
Failure…is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.Michelle Obama, quoted in Oprah Mag, interview available here.
These are powerful words for any writer, as many of us struggle with self-doubt at some time or another. As Obama’s words remind us, the important thing is to be brave. Choose the bold choice (pen to page, hands to keyboard) when self-doubt and vulnerability amp up fear.
10. Write about people in a time that interests you
2019 was a year of many hotly-anticipated novels, including Margaret Atwood’s sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments.
It was also the year we lost titans of storytelling, including the luminous Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer winner, Toni Morrison.
In a wide-ranging discussion on The Handmaid’s Tale‘s dystopian story, The Testaments and present-day politics, Atwood describes different types of stories:
There’s four kinds of stories: extraordinary people in extraordinary times, extraordinary people in ordinary times, ordinary people in ordinary times, and ordinary people in extraordinary times. And if you wanted peace for life, you should vote for ordinary people in ordinary times.Margaret Atwood, in conversation with Omar El Akkad, transcription available here.
Atwood’s ‘four types of story’ remind us of the interesting combinations to be found in writing about different people in different places, in different decades.
What were some of your most memorable moments in reading and writing in the past decade?
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