Beth Gutcheon, author of Gossip, is the critically acclaimed author of eight previous novels: The New Girls, Still Missing, Domestic Pleasures, Saying Grace, Five Fortunes, More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage and Good-bye and Amen. She is the writer of several film scripts, including the Academy Award nominee The Children of Theatre Street. She lives in New York City. She took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for Book-in-a-Week readrs:
Michele Brouder: After writing nine books and numerous screenplays, how do you still manage to come up with great storylines?
Beth Gutcheon: I read all the time, lots of biographies and volumes of letters. I read the papers, I listen to my friends, and I’m always sifting, watching people, looking for details or character tells or plot twists. There’s something metabolically necessary to me about taking the chaotic material of real life and re-forming it into patterns that have meaning. We’re all searching for meaning in our various ways; storytelling is mine.
Michele Brouder: What do you ascribe your staying power to?
Beth Gutcheon: I love to read. Love it. But I’m too much of a Calvinist to just settle down and read in broad daylight, unless I’ve got a fever over 101, or if it’s for work. Starting a new novel is like starting a college course expressly designed to match my curiosity. Gossip gave me a delicious excuse to read about the fashion industry from the 50’s on, and the careers of various professional gossips. Walter Winchell, anyone? I love the research phase of any book. Hate the actual writing, but it does sort of go with the job description.
Michele Brouder: Where do you get your ideas from?
Beth Gutcheon: Everywhere. Travel. For a year after a trip to Madrid, I thought I would write about Velazquez. You should see the research stack from that. So far all that’s come of it is that Avis, in Gossip, is an expert in Old Master paintings, but maybe I’ll come back to it. Reading, listening, studying fiction I admire to see what it sprang from and how it was done. But really, from everything.
Michele Brouder: What is a typical writing day for you?
Beth Gutcheon: I write five days a week; my office is at home. When I’m in the writing phase of a project, I read the paper, I take care of email, then I work until I’ve done a minimum of 500 words. Some days, I do more, but I never do less. I don’t answer the phone, and I don’t go out for lunch or anything funny like that. When the word count is done it’s time for exercise, a long walk or gardening, depending on the season, or yoga and Wii Fit at home if the weather is gruesome. I try not to go back into the office until the next morning, and I never reread one day’s work until I’ve slept on it.
Michele Brouder: From start to finish, how long does it take you to write a novel?
Beth Gutcheon: They’re all different. How long it takes to accumulate critical mass so I can begin a first draft depends on serendipity and the subject. Once I actually start to write, I think it’s usually nine months until the end of the first draft. After that I edit and rewrite and polish until I have a draft I don’t hate. Then it goes to two readers, I get their notes, then do what I have to do. When I either think I’m done or don’t know what else to do, it goes to new readers. Then I polish and squeeze out every bit of fat I can find. When I start adding things back in, I know it’s time to stop and send it to my agent. Two years is probably the average.
Michele Brouder: Do you have any unpublished or unfinished manuscripts in the bottom of a drawer?
Beth Gutcheon: No. I only write long fiction, and I only have come completely apart in the middle of one once. It was a terrible experience, and frightened me for years. Then finally after three more novels and some screenwriting that went well, I went back to the one that had blown up and was in a sufficiently different place in my life – being older helped a lot – that I could see what to do. That became More Than You Know, a book that really found its audience, so I can’t say I regret what went into it, but do sincerely hope it never happens again.
Michele Brouder: What do you find helps when you are writing a book and you have become stuck?
Beth Gutcheon: I used to go to the gym with my friend Laurie during writing hours, against all my rules, and we’d wear ourselves out and then laugh in the steam room. Once I think I took a week off and didn’t talk to anyone and exercised all day and read all night. But the real answer is that I don’t start a novel until I know enough about it that I’m pretty sure I can make it work, and after that I’m not allowed to be stuck. It’s 500 words a day, even if I know I’m going to have to throw it out the next day. Somehow, you inch forward. I’ve supported myself as a storyteller almost my whole adult life, and put my son through college on my own. It was and is my day job. And every day’s work is in some way homage to all the books I’ve loved, and it is privilege enough to be labouring in those vineyards, that I feel a duty to get on with it.
Michele Brouder: What amount of preparation do you do beforehand (i.e. outline, research, character analysis) or do you write spontaneously?
Beth Gutcheon: Tons of research on the background, place and period, reading both fiction and non-fiction. Tons on the working worlds of characters. I take notes all along on plot ideas, turns of phrase, character traits. When it gels, I do character outlines for all the major players, so I know exactly when and where they were born, what they eat, what they read, where they went to school, their birthdays, wedding days, etc. I can’t imagine writing long form fiction spontaneously.
Michele Brouder: What, in your opinion, is the one quality an aspiring writer needs to succeed?
Beth Gutcheon: An ability to spend a great deal of time alone. The woods are full of really gifted writers who couldn’t hack that part and took up other, more sociable professions.
Michele Brouder: What advice would you give an aspiring writer in today’s publishing climate?
Beth Gutcheon: Be sure you are writing in the right form for your talent. Many beginning writers learn the short story, because it’s easier to fit a short form into a teaching curriculum, but it’s a very difficult form, and not suited to all talents. Be wary of memoir and of first person narrative; they seem to come naturally but in fact are very hard to handle effectively. And your agent is your most important professional ally. You want someone who is really invested in your career, who hopes to rise with you, whose tastes you trust, and who is well enough established to get her phone calls returned.