Hearing about how writers write, and the process they go with their books, is fascinating to me. William Kennedy’s books read very easy, like they’ve just appeared out of thin air, so it was fascinating to hear about the years it took for him to write things like Very Old Bones and Roscoe (the latter being one of the best books about politics ever; he said he started it around 68, but didn’t have the stuff to write it until he understood the political machine of Albany. It came out in 2002). Perhaps you will find this process interesting, too. Outtake from this Paris Review Daily piece from 2011.
Was some of that in The Rum Diary?
I don’t know what’s in The Rum Diary anymore, I saw the original one that was about twice as fat as the one now. I think he did well to cut it the way he did. It’s a lot better book now than it used to be. I think people are looking for the outtakes now and I’m sure they’re out there, somewhere in the bottom of his pile of papers. I found that to be a strange book. When I first read it, I told him I didn’t think you should publish it and he sort of wore that like a badge and talked about it on Charlie Rose. It wasn’t a good book in those days, after awhile Hunter established himself in a way that was singular, and therefore, anything he writes, it’s like Tom Wolfe. His laundry tickets, as Dwight McDonald said, are publishable.
I didn’t think much of his evaluation of the Puerto Rican press, it didn’t have any relationship with reality to me.
What was your relationship with the Puerto Rican press?
Puerto Rico was a boomtown. I stayed with the paper two years as a managing editor and then I couldn’t stand it anymore so I quit, everyone thought I got fired but I quit. I stayed on for two more years as a kind of weekend editor, went in on Friday nights and closed the papers with the city editor, and made up the Monday paper with the editor. Saturday and Sunday night I’d go to the city desk and put out the Monday paper. I was writing editorials and it was only about two and a half days work for me, and the rest of the time I was writing the novel that would eventually become Very Old Bones.
It was a long time transitioning, first it was called One by One, then it was called The Angels and The Sparrows. It never got published under those names, it went around under two different agents, to probably 30 publishers, 35 publishers, nobody ever took it. It was dark, it was gloomy, it wasn’t funny. So I put it aside, and I never really went back to it, until after Quinn’s Book. I started looking around, I went in and found that old material. I had really pilfered it for the Phelan family when I wrote Billy Phelan.
That was the foundation novel for me, The Angels and the Sparrows. It was a pretty good book. There was a lot wrong with it and the prose was a little overblown and overstated, but the dialogue was pretty good and the story was good. It was just that I didn’t have an awareness of how to tell the story I wanted to tell, until I had gone through the whole bizarre experience of writing Legs for six years, rejecting and rejecting and rejecting. And then I became what I became.
It shapes you, it makes you a better writer.
I think it’s the way it has to happen, most of the time. Trial and error.