Monday, Dec. 10 , 1 p.m. ET

Off the Page: Marie Arana and Richard Bausch

With Off the Page Host Carole Burns
Monday, December 10, 2007; 1:00 PM

How do writers create their characters? What makes authors work so hard to find the only word that's right? Have they ever just wanted to give up?

These are some of the questions explored in a new book, based on Off the Page interviews and being published on Dec. 10: Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between.

Marie Arana, novelist and editor of Book World, and Richard Bausch, the author of 10 novels and seven collections of stories, will both join Off the Page on Monday, Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about writing and the writing life.

Submit your questions and comments now or during the discussion.

Arana, who also wrote the introduction to Off the Page, is the author of two critically acclaimed books, her memoir, American Chica, and her novel, Cellophane.

Bausch's awards include the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. His novel Thanksgiving Night was published last year, and his new novel, Peace, comes out in April.

Please join us to talk about their work, Off the Page and other writerly matters.

--Carole Burns

Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between is based on 41 Off the Page interviews by host and writer Carole Burns, and is being published by W.W. Norton. It is available for pre-order online at amazon, Barnes & Noble and Politics and Prose.


Carole Burns: Good afternoon, and welcome to Off the Page. I am pleased to announce the return of two of my favorite writers and interview-ees from Off the Page: Marie Arana and Richard Bausch. Their quotes are some of the best in the book, and today, we'll hear more. And so, let's get started


Carole Burns: So I'm going to start with a really huge question for both of you. And that is, Why do you write?

Marie Arana: And the truth is: There is no why. I just do.

When I was very young, I used to write poetry, and I found that enormously satisfying: whittling language down to its purest element. It all started back there, I suppose.

Now, it's as if I have no choice. I don't ever set out with a program of what I want to write. I simply love to weave the words and then the words become a story and then the story has a life of its own.

I write because I have to. The way a shark needs to swim in order to breathe.

Carole Burns: Fast answer: It beats coal mining. I think that was Buck Henry's answer to it, that sounded pretty good. I don't have any of those "I write because I have to," "God wants me too," none of that kind of stuff. I write because it's fun, and I can do it. It's something I can do.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Mr. Bausch, what is your advice for handling or avoiding writer's block? I know some have advised to just keep writing, even if it is nonsense, until something sensical emerges through the block. Is this good advice?

Carole Burns: Yeah. Lower your standards. Keep on going. That's William Stafford's advice. It works. I don't get blocked much. For me, it stopped being a problem back when I stopped trying to hit a homerun with every line. I'm just a story teller. I'm just telling a story. Just try to be clear.


Chicago, IL: Marie Arana, What is it like going back and forth between being a writer and the editor of a publication about writers? Not quite a critic, not quite both sides of the fence, but a little?

Marie Arana: Oh, this is the hardest thing about my life.

In order to write, I have to stop being the critic (or editor). I have to take off that hat. Because the best writing anyone can do comes when one plays the fool, when all the stops are out and there is no fear. The critic in me(or the editor) keeps trying to pull me back. I have to ignore that more cautious side of my own nature when I sit down to write my own novels.

"Cellophane" is, in many ways, a wild novel. If I had stopped to ask myself--at any point in the writing--why I was doing what I was doing, I would have fallen on my face.

As for editing Book World: overseeing a journal about books in general is the great pleasure of my life. I learn so much from the work of others. The trick is in leaving it all behind when I start to write my own work.


Carole Burns: Marie and Richard,

Is there any one problem that you have to overcome with your writing? Something you always struggle with? And how do you handle it?

Carole Burns: Yeah. Really, during composition, the tendency to put down every waking and sleeping moment in the life of a character. Staying in scenes too long. I think that's a problem a lot of writers probably have, and a lot of writing happens in the revision, trying to be terribly smart about what remains, and what goes. Just do it over and over again and read it over and over again and see if there's a more forceful way to say it, more economic, unwasteful way to say it.


Carole Burns: Oops. A few answers above, directed at Richard, have my name on them--but they are Richard's answers! We'll fix the typing later... but know that now...


Arlington, Va.: Can you each talk about books, or writers, whom you adore at the moment?

Marie Arana: Well, if you're asking about my favorite writers of all time, my role models are: Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Gustave Flaubert (Bovary), any Joseph Conrad, any Nabokov (but especially Speak Memory), Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, and Flannery O'Connor . . .

Writers I admire at the moment: Ian McEwan, Geraldine Brooks, Cormac McCarthy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alice McDermott . . .

But that's just off the top of my head! I'm leaving out a lot.

Richard Bausch: The Russians, usual suspects, Shakespeare, The Bible, Faulkner, Joyce, KA Porter, Welty, Elizabeth Spencer, George Garrett, my brother Bobby, dozens of others.


Washington, DC: Carole, who is your perfect reader for this book? Is this a book that can be taught, or is it to be read for pleasure, or when you are looking for a way out of a thorny writing problem? Who did you envision reading and using it when you compiled it?

Carole Burns: The problem is that I find this fascinating, so of course I think everyone will. The obvious audience is people who wish to write, who are trying to write, as well as people are teaching writing. But I would like to think that anyone who reads will find this interesting, and I also think artists of any stripe can learn from it.

Everytime I finished an interview, there would be at least one comment someone said that I'd want to immediately share with someone--writer, reader, whoever. Last week, with Ha Jin, he said, You have to keep a novel warm... that's one thing what I came away with. So you can browse the book for the bits that mean something to you.


Carole Burns: Marie and Richard,

Is there any one problem that you have to overcome with your writing? Something you always struggle with? And how do you handle it?

Marie Arana: Time is my problem.

I have to write in off hours, since I have a day job and a boss with big expectations.

The Washington Post is very generous in giving me a few months' vacation every four years or so, but that's just enough to get a story started. I then need to get up in the wee hours and write before i go off to work.

That's my BIG problem. Just about the time when my head gets in the zone, the clock tells me I have to push off and go earn my salary.

Richard Bausch: I don't really do that. Hello to the Cannibals is set in England--never been to Africa. I have a little southern Virginia town, a little character-less Virginia town with a little Civil War stuff in it. For me, the place is interior, I'm more interested in the psychic place than the physical place. I don't want to read about the courthouse. I don't give a shit about the courthouse. That's just me. Critics, readers, people admire it--they like writers that put them in a place. I'm not stating an aesthetic everybody should embrace.


Washington, DC: Can you each tell me about your new books, coming or in progress?

Marie Arana: I've just finished a novel called "Mano a Mano." It just went off to my agent and editor a few weeks ago. It's a love story, but a difficult one. Race gets in the way. Age gets in the way. History gets in the way. And love is the victim.

I suppose it will be published in a year or so. Publishers do seem to need that amount of time to gear up on a new novel.

Richard Bausch: I have a short novel coming in April from Knopf. It's called PEACE, and is set in Italy, near Mt. Cassino, in the terrible winter of 1944. Based on something my father told me long ago.


Philadelphia, Pa.: When you start a novel, do you always know what the ending will be? I've had some novelists tell me different anwers, and I was wondering how you put your novels together?

Marie Arana: Interesting question!

I was so suprised to hear John Irving tell me in an interview that he always writes his last sentence first. That seems to me like an impossible task, but he does it, and CANNOT begin until he has it down. Apparently, once he's decided it's just right, he never changes it.

I, on the other hand, don't know where I'm going. Oh, well, I do vaguely know whether it's going to be a 1. wistful, 2. tragic, or 3. happy ending. But every day that I sit down to write, I'm just trying to find out where my bumptious, eccentric, and thoroughly unmanageable characters are going.

Richard Bausch: It varies from book to book and story to story. Sometimes I write to find out what the end is, then, knowing it, RE-write. Over and over.


Washington, DC: Marie, your work seems to be set often in Latin America, and Richard's, yours sometimes in the south... Why is it you both return to the places you were raised? What about them inspires your imagination?

Richard Bausch: I don't really do that. Hello to the Cannibals is set in England--never been to Africa. I have a little southern Virginia town, a little character-less Virginia town with a little Civil War stuff in it. For me, the place is interior, I'm more interested in the psychic place than the physical place. I don't want to read about the courthouse. I don't give a shit about the courthouse. That's just me. Critics, readers, people admire it--they like writers that put them in a place. I'm not stating an aesthetic everybody should embrace.


New York, NY: Will you be doing any readings for Off the Page?

Carole Burns: We have a number of events planned. There's a book launch party Tuesday, Dec. 18 at Busboys & Poets in DC, at 7 p.m.

In January, four authors from the book--Marie Arana, Alice McDermott, Mary Kay Zuravleff and Carolyn Parkhurst--will join me at Politics & Prose to talk about their work. This is Friday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m.

Then in New York, I'm at McNally Robinson NYC on Monday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. with three writers from the book--Alison Smith, Hannah Tinti and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

Thanks for asking.


Washington, DC: I have a screenplay treatment aka outline that two different professional screenwriter friends liked, but I find it nearly impossible to describe the inner feelings of my characters through their own dialog. I write it in a way that I think makes sense, but my wife says it's leaden. Needless to say my friend's agents aren't going to see an uncompleted screenplay. How do you communicate feelings through dialog? Tips or Tricks?

Richard Bausch: Keep everything in context, and try to have each line doing more than one thing--not just giving exposition but also revealing character and history, etc.

Look at the scene in COOL HAND LUKE between Paul Newman, (Luke) and Luke's mother, Arletta (Jo Van Fleet--who is only six years older than Newman). Look what you learn about the two people in the eight or nine minutes of that amazing scene. It'a a model for every passage of dialogue you'll ever write if you look at it hard enough, and long enough.


Alexandria, Virginia: Pardon me if this is rude, but might I ask Marie about her choice of reviewers on the Bill O'Reilly book yesterday? Was picking Alan Dershowitz meant to provoke the TV host? Did it seem like a book review to you, or some sort of slash-and-burn editorial?

Marie Arana: This question is way off point, but I'm glad to take it on.

When my assignment editor sent O'Reilly's book off to Alan Dershowitz, he had no idea what Dershowitz would say. Neither did I. As a lawyer, as someone who considers (every day) a citizen's rights, Dershowitz seemed a fair reviewer who would be capable of telling readers whether or not O'Reilly interprets the law correctly.

Once a review comes in, if it is argued well, and if the errors it cites are indeed errors, we have no choice but to print it. To pull a review because it is scathing would be a disservice to everyone.


Washington, DC: Do you have a favorite book of 2007?

Richard Bausch: I'm presently reading as one of 3 judges for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and I am reading in or reading all of the 300 volumes of fiction published this year. I have a very few favorites so far. So far. And can't name a one for the curcumstance.


Washington, DC: As a fan, I have to say I take personal satisfaction in reading passages of the book and saying, "I asked the question that brought out that answer!!" But beyond that, I love the feel of the authors almost talking TO each other within each chapter.

How different would the book have been if you had gone author by author? Did you worry about taking things out of context, of missing one author's cohesive interview? Were there any you were tempted to just include outright? Any that didn't yield material?

Carole Burns: Running transcripts was the obvious first idea for a book, and you do get a sense of development within the interviews--the writer warming up, an answer leading to another question. But many of the interviews centered around the book that authors had out at the time, and I think they'd have felt dated very quickly.

I structured the chapters purposefully so that the thoughts of the authors progressed in a way... that they had not so much a logic, but a sequence, perhaps. I think I describe them in the intro as moving in concentric circles... And once I came up with the idea of these chapters, I was never again tempted by the idea of transcripts. You can read those online anyway.


Carole Burns: Marie, what are your thoughts on the question about place?

Marie Arana: Marie Arana: What was it that Garcia Marquez once said: That everything he ever knew he learned before he was 8 years old?

That's how I feel about Peru. I was born there, lived there until I was almost 10. And everything I ever knew begins there. My body immigrated to America, but my head stayed behind. At least my creative head. I have no problem working in the red-white-and-blue, but my imagination pulls me back my birthplace. I've just finished another novel set in Peru. It's Lima this time. Just can't get away!


Chicago: I have a very specific question about a specific author: Ward Just, who also happens to be a distinguished former Washington Post correspondent. I love all his books-- I just started his latest ("Forgetfulness."). Despite that fact that I value his writing, one thing always puzzles me: in his books, he never uses quotatation marks! Why?!? I have never seen that in any other author's work, and it to me it seems like an unnecesary (and, in certian instances, confusing) choice. Do you know why he does that?

Richard Bausch: It's probably a temperamental thing. There is no artistic justification I can think of. The English use dashes, for dialogue as a matter of course. I did it all through the Mary Kingsley sections of my novel HELLO TO THE CANNIBALS. Just because that part of the book was set in England and Africa, and I needed the sections to be distinctly different--to the eye as well as the mind.


Freising, Germany: I enjoyed your essay in the Washington Post Magazine, "The Stones She Carries". It reminded me of my childhood when I, as an enthusiastic collector of rocks and minerals, embarrassed my parents by going on fossicking expeditions during vacations and bringing back stones of colorful quartz and felspar. My mother eventually confiscated most of them for her garden.

As an adult, I once found smooth and polished stones in the sands at the site of the Mycernus temple in Egypt, and I was reminded of the futile efforts of immortality by the Egyptian Pharaohs and our short very mortal lives.

But I wasn't quite sure about one detail in your story. Do you carry your stones with you in your purse? My mother would certainly have disapproved.

Carole Burns: Marie, many people have mentioned your piece to me. It was lovely.

Marie Arana: Oh my. Thank you for reading that piece. And from so far away!

Yes, alas. I do carry the stones in my purse. Not all at once, of course (so perhaps your mother wouldn't be so hard on me!). But these little amulets--three or four at a time--are such good company. Each one means something unique. I find myself reaching into my purse for something I need and then my fingers end up touching a faraway memory . . .

But I'm not alone in this obsession, it seems. I've heard from so many people like you who share it.


Bethesda, MD: What I love about Off the Page, and the new book especially, is that it doesn't feel preachy like other Writers Books --- it's more like your eavesdropping on a conversation at a cafe. But do non-writers love this kind of thing, too? Is it as thrilling for them to hear writers talk about character, and what informs their work?

Marie Arana: A reader is as much a participant in a book as a writer, I feel. What was it that Alvaro Mutis once said? "To read a book is to be born again. You enter another mind's world and yet you are creating it yourself, in your own imagination."

Which says to me that I would be fascinated in writers' answers about their work, whether or not I were a writer myself.

Reading is such a collaborative act, no?

Richard Bausch: Well, I'm not a non-writer (yet--gulp) but I recall that when I was very young and an avid reader and not dreaming I would ever put pencil to paper, I was also completely enthralled by every single comment I ever encountered by a writer about the work. and I never forgot one thing, not one slight dropped comment about the whole thing that I ever heard or read. I remember telling someone confidently that if you were going to write about violence and other hard things, there could be no shutting of the eyes, and I had seen that very line in Hemingway's Bullfighting book, when I was seventeen or so.

I think, from that narrow evidence, that avid readers are participants in the whole enterprise--it is a participatory sport, indeed.


Carole Burns: Our time is up. A warm thanks to Marie and Richard for coming online today... it's great to talk to you again.And please remember, we have two more "Off the Page" interviews coming up in the next week, on Wednesday with Nell Freudenberger, who won (with Richard Bausch, coincidentally) the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellent in the Short Story in 2004. She's on at 3 p.m. Then on Monday, we have Andrea Barrett, who will talk about her new book, The Air We Breathe.You can learn more about Off the Page at my Web site, And please email me at to sign up for news by email about "Off the Page."


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