Sunday, August 22, 2010

Daniel Silva on Writing

A couple months ago, I shared the advice of literary prize winner Richard Russo’s thoughts on writing and publishing. Though he had scored some serious prizes (Pulitzer), Hollywood experience, and stories recreated on TV, Empire Falls is by far his best-known work and I’d guess it’s not a household name.

So I thought it’d be a nice contrast against a legitimate bestselling thriller author, a guy whose books start at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller lists—Daniel Silva. His protagonist is Gabriel Allon, a semi-retired Israeli spy who also restores paintings by the Old Masters. It’s a unique mix that’s just believable enough to work, as Silva is quite good with the details. His The Kill Artist was amazing, though a later work I read was a great deal less impressive.

The Reading

On July 29, 2010, Silva arrived for about 200-250 people at the St. Louis County Public Library wearing a tie, suit jacket and complementary pants. (The most dressed up I’ve ever seen of an author at any reading.) When the host announced the winner of the drawing for a signed copy of his latest book, The Rembrandt Affair, he took the book from the host and walked it to the winner, shaking her hand. It was a classy touch.

Here are some highlights from the Q&A:

Writing a Thriller

  • For every thriller, he reads between 50-80 non-fiction books while he’s writing—“I don’t have any time to read fiction.”
  • He researches “all the way to the end.”
  • Due to the realities of the publishing world, he must write 1 book a year, so basically he starts every January in his basement. So 1 book = 5 months of intense labor.
  • He goes through every step of the different world-wide locales in his books to make sure he gets his facts correct. For The Rembrandt Affair he went to every locale, but one (because his daughter caught the swine flu), so another person went for him.
  • He can’t enjoy reading his books until they’re in paperback.
  • He has to crack open the past books to remember details about his characters. He says he’s started suffering from short-term memory loss.


  • He said Allon was meant to be a minor character in The Body Artist, but he took over the book. He had switched publishers, so they asked him to pursue something new. He decided to focus on a Palestinian terrorist. That’s how he started, but that’s not how it ended. He’s been writing massive bestsellers ever since.
  • He supplies “World Tour” T-shirts to anyone who purchases his latest book on-site.
  • A fan came from Kentucky (at least a four hour drive) to attend this reading.
  • Silva said St. Louis is his favorite spot on book tours because it generates his biggest crowds. He said earlier on the 2-week tour, he’d been at a Costco, stuck between tires and cans of tuna. “The cans of tuna were as big as the tires.”
  • He cut off at 7:50, after about 45 minutes, because he said his voice was going (after nearly 2 weeks on the book tour).
  • When someone good-naturedly asked about his wife and two kids, his face froze hard for a moment. This topic was obviously verboten. He answered generally and moved on.
  • He turns 50 this year.
  • Naturally, he’s been approached by Hollywood, but has rebuffed their efforts so far because he hasn’t been happy with the directing and writing talent involved. One executive told him, “What’s wrong with you? Just take the money. You’re the only one who won’t sell your books. You and that … that guy who wrote Catcher in the Rye. Are you afraid we’ll make a bad movie? Of course we’ll make a bad movie. That’s what we do everyday.”

Appedix A: Hemingway?

I’ve heard of others experiencing this, but I’ve never had this happen to me before.

Whenever I’m seriously depleted, I try to read voraciously (and sleep) to recharge. So I’d finished a major freelance project Monday night, and began devouring non-fiction and magazines so I could return to some stories I’m working on. Then I bounced through a Joyce Carol Oates essay that mentioned Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” short story, featuring his eponymous character Nick Adams. Had to read it. Happily, I have a first edition of The Nick Adams Stories on my shelves (purchased in San Diego, if memory serves), so I read it. And the next one. And the next one.

They’re different. Terse. Short. Often purposely incomplete. Memorable.

Then I couldn’t write my own stories. His style was overpowering. My writing voice is completely incompatible with his. I realized I could either finish devouring the stories or write with my own voice.

The Nick Adams Stories is back on my bookshelf.

Appendix B: Ads in Books?

Two different articles say with e-readers will come ads. Read all about it!

Tim O’Brien, he of the amazing linked-short story collection The Things They Carried (which contains my favorite short story of all time—““Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” I’m not saying it’s the best ever, but my favorite ever.), says good fiction comes down to this: Is it boring?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Creative Nonfiction

There is a genre that I was unfamiliar with as such until about a month ago that I'm rather taken by: creative nonfiction. I think this is a type of writing I could excel at if I decide that I do want to become an I-want-to-be-taken-seriously writer. Essays and memoirs (which, of course, I am familiar with) do fall under the creative nonfiction umbrella, but I've since discovered it is more than that.

Thanks to a quite literarily accomplished friend (MFA, published writer), I've been exposed to the creative ends that creative non-fiction can reach. I borrowed her Creative Nonfiction anthology, and read some examples she linked to me. Click here to read a piece in the form of an interview. (Click here to see my attempt modeled after the same form.)

Another exploration of creative nonfiction centers around what's known as "found text." Things like warning labels, encyclopedia or dictionary entries, periodical blurbs could all be considered found text. Here's another interesting piece centered around a disclaimer statement.

I'll keep experimenting and see where it leads.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010



Greetings fellow Wordies. That’s like Foodies but for those folks like Erasmus who like books more than they like food. Your kind editor has graciously allowed this Notes Blogger Tuesday’s guest spot.

I read a short story yesterday. I don't read much fiction. There's far too much non-fiction that interests me. I just don’t have time for fiction. Besides the fact that I usually read on the slow side, ruminating on each sentence, luxuriating in each word, trying to get a clear picture in my mind of exactly what is being said.

For me to have anything remotely resembling understanding, I need to read something at least twice, if not thrice. I've read Chekhov's "Oysters" twice now, and I am liking it more and more and less and less. Having experienced firsthand some of the things that can go through a person's mind when they are unemployed I felt a strong empathy with the father.

Having a young son, I felt an extreme empathy well up within me for the young boy in the story. I found myself amazed at Chekhov's ability to evoke such strong feelings in me by using the perspective of the young child. And I was equally enthralled with how he was able to recreate the naive wonderment of the worldview of an eight year old and how a child's worldview is so malleable and so quickly able to change with the tides.

Without any real sense of closure, the story left me feeling sad,
uneasy, and did nothing to alleviate continuing apprehension about my own employment woes.

I like the genre of the short story. I like that I can dash one off to
my Blackberry and read the story while waiting for an appointment.

And I like the Russians. I like their sense of the inevitable and their
empathy for suffering.

And I really like Gutenberg.

And I really, really like oysters. Preferably raw, with a grating of fresh horseradished cocktail and a squirt of lemon.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Plight of the Bibliophile

Peek into the trunk of my '98 Ford Escort today, and you will find it empty for the first time in months. Earlier, it was crammed with boxes marked "Textbooks", "Philosophy & Religion", "Literature", and "Writing-Craft". Besides the degree I brought home from college, I brought a lot of books I didn't have before, books that didn't fit anywhere on my shelves.

I've been driving the blue bookmobile since December, my morning commute to the office and my tri-weekly trips to church weighted by "treasured wealth of the world." At home, my bookshelves are brimming with volumes on a host of subjects I can hardly ever hope to master: half a dozen ancient and modern languages, Jewish history, musical composition, art, fashion design, gardening, and gourmet cooking...

But now my well-traveled books sit, still in boxes, in one corner of the dining room. I think I'll donate a few books to the library bookstore, at least the ones I haven't once thought of in seven months. Or maybe I could sell them online and put the money in my new car fund?

But before I do any culling, I've got to make that order from Daedalus Books. I found some really good deals!

When I have money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes." ~Erasmus

Current Reading: