Don't Write--Revise (And Break Rules)

Break the rules and be prepared to fight for publication

Posted Aug 07, 2010

Writing rules are a good starting point. But only a starting point. Take, for example, a novel I just read, Abducted by Circumstance, by David Madden. The author of award-winning novels and short stories since 1961, Madden also created the undergraduate creative writing program at Louisiana State University in 1968.

In our recent e-mail interview, I told Madden I was surprised that he'd "gotten away with" a book in which a main event is a kidnapping and probable murder that contains almost no salaciousness, and in which nearly every dramatic event takes place in the protagonist's mind. Plus we never find out what really happened, and the book is quirkily short.

Madden told me that, indeed, the novel was rejected right and left.

"My agent got extremely positive reports from many New York editors," Madden explained, "but they all had faith--which I do not share--in the general reader's inability to collaborate with authors such as myself."

Editors responded in the same hesitant way, said Madden, to some of his previous books, including The Suicide's Wife (related to but not a prequel to Abducted) and Sharpshooter, as well as to his next novel, London Bridge in Plague and Fire.

"But no reader of any of those novels and no reviews supported the editors' fears," he told me. "My not telling what happened to Glenda [the kidnapped woman] stresses the overriding importance of what happens in [the narrator] Carol's imagination.'


Q: Did the book "fall together" this way from the very first, or did it evolve for you? And how different was this book's genesis for you compared to the others?

Carol and the way she responds came to me immediately, more fully alive in a moment than any of my other characters. Characters come to me in stories and novels much in the same way, either as characters suddenly appearing or the concept demanding their appearance (as it was with Willis Carr in SHARPSHOOTER) or the story itself reaching out to take their hands and pull them in (as with most of the characters in LONDON BRIDGE IN PLAGUE AND FIRE). They quickly come alive and stay alive throughout the writing, and some, for many years beyond.

Q: In all the years you've been writing, how has the process changed for you?

The changes aren't dramatic. Inspired by the method of Georges Simenon, the French psychological crime novelist, which was that he wrote each of his 250 novels in 11 days, I wrote PLEASURE DOME, early version, in 11 days, and THE SUICIDE'S WIFE in 19 days and ABDUCTED BY CIRCUMSTANCE in 21 days; but I devoted from 6 to 15 years to CASSANDRA SINGING, BIJOU, SHARPSHOOTER, and LONDON BRIDGE IN PLAGUE AND FIRE. You can imagine that the simple matter of time spent writing and rewriting suggests a process that is basically the same but produced through different expenditures of energy.

I don't write, I revise, and that takes time, unless, suddenly, I can do it at great speed, and ironically, the novels written swiftly are more coherent works of art. That also explains the brevity. BIJOU is almost 700 pages long and so is not a work of art, but it was a great success with readers, who said, however, typically, "I didn't want it to end, but it was too long."

Q: Do you find it easier to block out distractions, set aside time, get into a writing mood/mode when you want to?

Not really, because it is I who am the source of distractions (teaching, writing nonfiction, essays, speeches, reviews, textbooks), and I am always in the mood and I am always in the mode, always eager to write, never having had to chop a writer's block. I have put it this way: Everything I am and do in my life is immersed in a single, uninterrupted flow of creative energy.

Q: Does the cancer subplot have any personal relevance for you?

My wife had breast cancer many years ago and she worked for the YWCA conducting early breast cancer detection programs for low- income women, and my best friend died of liver cancer, and members of my family have suffered the pain of cancer, but I simply wanted Carol to have her own rape (cancer as rapist) and death threat, without over-stressing it and therefore distracting from the plight she imagines for Glenda. And she feels a sisterhood with Glenda, who has had cancer, and empathy for her husband who is dying of cancer. I am an activist in a number of causes, and I helped get a residential hospice started in Baton Rouge, inspired by sitting at my dying brother's bedside each day for six weeks.


Q: Why did you choose the frigid north as a setting?

My earlier novel THE SUICIDE'S WIFE begins in an empty house in The Thousand Islands of New York, which I had only glimpsed from the International Bridge going over into Canada in 1964. The image of it stirs my imagination. Intuitively, I felt that that exotic place of thousands of separate islands would enhance my rendering of Carol's life and her act of compassion--the sense of her isolation from others in an isolated place, and her imagining Glenda and the abductor isolated from others, seeking places of isolation.  I'm not, by the way from Louisiana, my home for 43 years, but East Tennessee, which gets as cold as or colder than Black Mountain, North Carolina, where I now live.

Q: Writing from a woman's viewpoint so naturally, did you at any point have to ask anyone, "What would a woman do or say here"?

Hell, no, because I am temperamentally suited to live out my long-held conviction that a writer ought to be able to imagine any kind of person. I believe in the supremacy of the imagination. So when women, my wife first, of course, tell me that Ann, from whose very intimate point of view I render THE SUICIDE'S WIFE is very convincing, I am very pleased, and when the first reader of ABDUCTED BY CIRCUMSTANCE, a woman, tells me she felt as if it were written by a woman, I feel that my imagination and my art have succeeded hand in hand.

Q: Have you been called an "empath" as Carol is by her father late in the book?

Yes, often, but not necessarily that word. Once a famous authority on warlocks called me a warlock and warned me to be very careful in ways I use the power. Well, if a warlock can be benevolent and empathetic in imagination and in action, I may be a warlock. I prefer "empath," especially now that I have created one in Carol. A close friend visited me in my mountain town a few days ago and made a point of saying why he and others we know miss me. "David, you are one of those rare people who actually listen to people." I am very moved by that. My wife not so deeply.

Q: Your religious faith makes a slight appearance in the book. Anything to add on that?

I never impose my Methodist Christianity on anyone and I never theme-monger my various other convictions in my writing, not even in my nonfiction. Looking back, though, I feel it is there, even in what I wrote, and in my life, during the 50 years of my agnosticism (I became a Christian 15 years ago). I am a New Testament Christian exclusively, and the Holy Spirit dwells within my spirit, so Carol's calling a few times on the Holy Spirit arises from her role as empath.

I realized only last week that THE BEAUTIFUL GREED, written when I was an agnostic, is a parable of the parable of the good Samaritan. I became a Christian midway in the 15 years I worked on LONDON BRIDGE IN PLAGUE AND FIRE [started 22 years ago] and so I am aware that in that book, I was always moving my villain toward his 30 seconds of "salvation" after he calls on Christ, before he falls impaled upon a pike on the roof of the Great Gate on London Bridge.

  • Watch a short interview with Madden on YouTube.
  • Check out his website.
  • When I began interviewing Madden about his latest novel, I didn't realize I'd already lauded his insightful book Revising Fiction (unfortunately out of print) on a blog post months ago.

[Madden himself took the photo for the book jacket pictured above.]

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