Writers spend a lot of time wondering about other writers. They study them, emulate them, envy them, and, when one or two emerge as very successful, they bad-mouth them. Always there are questions that writers would like their colleagues to answer about their work, their lives, their miserable success. So, in that spirit, we posed this to writers participating in this year’s National Book Festival: If you could ask one question of one writer, what would it be? Here are their answers — or rather, their questions.
Siri Hustvedt asks Emily Brontë:
How did you devise the diabolical form of “Wuthering Heights?” Did you say to yourself, I will lock up my first narrator, Lockwood, in a piece of the dead Catherine’s furniture, which resembles both a book and a coffin, and in that cramped space, he will read her name on the walls and her diary written in the margins of another book, and there he will dream or hallucinate or actually see the young woman’s ghost? Did you plan to write a book about the ambiguities of the act of reading itself? I am happy to receive messages from beyond the grave.
Lisa See asks James M. Cain:
Did you hate women? Certainly, in novels like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity,” the women are spiders. Apparently, after you met a good woman, who was working hard to support her two children, you wrote “Mildred Pierce,” about a truly saintly and long-suffering woman. Later, you returned to writing stereotypical monster women, who are almost cartoonishly evil. What prompted you to return to that? Were you writing in line with your own experience? I ask because I write mostly about women and my main characters are always women. I work hard to make them individual and nuanced — not all good but not all bad, either.
Lynn Sherr asks Homer (not Simpson; the Greek one):
Please, sir, in “The Iliad,” how were you able to re-create so viscerally the scenes and emotions of a war that happened — if at all — centuries before you were born; in other words, what did you draw upon? How did you compose it? And how did it become “The Iliad?” Did someone actually write down the words while you recited it?“The Iliad” is the single best narrative about war and the human condition ever written — it makes me cry every time I read it (mostly in English, partly in Greek), and it makes me understand that humans and their gods have not changed over the centuries. But many mysteries remain: Was there a Homer? Was he the sole author? How did the ancient oral tradition evolve into scrolls and then a book? Just getting him there for the interview would be a spectacular first step, so thanks for the fantasy.
Elizabeth Mitchell asks John Williams:
When you wrote “Stoner,” did you know that you had struck the chime? You received virtually no notice about that book when it came out, no public encouragement, and yet it is flawless. Did you know in your heart that you had achieved perfect expression?
Kai Bird asks Bob Woodward:
As a fellow historian, when, if ever, will I be able to read your interview notes for all your groundbreaking books — and thus identify your sources? I ask this pointed question in a wholly sympathetic and admiring spirit — because I understand that you could not have written these books without promising many of your sources anonymity. So it was a necessary and good thing to do. But have you made arrangements so that someday we will be able to read your virtual footnotes? Having just written a book about the CIA in which I promised dozens of sources anonymity, I face a similar quandary. I want to honor my promises to my sources — but I also feel some obligation to future historians who will want to know how I came to know what I wrote.
Brian Lies asks Garth Williams:
What did you think when you were sent the manuscripts for “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web” to illustrate? When you first read each of them, did you think,“Wow — this book is going to be big!” Or did they seem like pleasant little stories — just another job? To me, your illustrations are such an integral part of the published books that I just can’t imagine them illustrated by anyone else.
David Treuer asks David Treuer:
Dear Mr. Treuer (may I call you David? Dave? Or should it be Professor Treuer? Formality feels so false in these casual times, and I, for one, feel so very close to you though, to be honest, not as close as I’d like to be — I have been told, you should know, that I have boundary issues, but I’m not sure if this is true, although you might have a different take on this, mightn’t you?). But it’s a terrible idea to ask an author anything important, especially when you expect an honest answer because, after all, it is true that writers more or less lie for a living, am I right? It’s possible I’ve upset you, isn’t it? Let me press on to the matter at hand if I may . . . I may? Right. Why do you write? (Truly, I don’t get it.)
Jack Gantos asks Herman Melville:
What “germinous seeds” did Nathaniel Hawthorne plant in your soul? Let me explain. While Melville was working on “Moby-Dick,” he and Hawthorne were hiking along a trail on Monument Mountain in Massachusetts. A rainstorm suddenly whipped up, and they took shelter. The storm lasted two hours, and the two men had a long and spirited conversation. Melville told Hawthorne about his difficulty in writing “Moby-Dick.” Hawthorne must have been very motivating in his response because afterward Melville said of Hawthorne, he “dropped germinous seeds into my soul.” Melville then rewrote his manuscript — working both on the arc of the story and on the prose and profundity.
Jeffrey Brown asks Carl Sagan:
What book would you write now? While the relaunch of “Cosmos” has perhaps helped rekindle an interest in both science and your work, there is still a resistance to science in some of the mainstream media and, more disturbing, in the government. Your book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” is just as relevant today as when it was published in 1995. You were one of our most reasonable, respectful, humble writers on science, and I would love to read what you would have contributed to today’s conversations about climate change and the importance of science.
Francisco Goldman asks Luis de Lión:
Where are your bones? De Lión, a Guatemalan, was the author of, among other works, the posthumous novel “Time Commences in Xibalbá,” published in 1985, a classic of 20th-century Central American literature. I first read about him in the latter ’80s when a Guatemalan newspaper announced that his novel, which I’d never heard of, had won an important prize in Italy; the newspaper only said that one day in 1984 Luis de Lión set out for work in Guatemala City and was never seen again. Now it is known that on May 15, 1984, he was “disappeared” by agents of G-2 Guatemalan Military Intelligence; later, in 1999, his name was discovered in a so-called military diary that recorded the secret executions of more than 200 people. His remains have never been found. I would ask Luis de Lión to tell us where his bones are so that they can be returned to his Kakchiquel relatives and village, and I would ask him to tell us whatever he can about his abductors, torturers and murderers so that maybe those who are still living can be brought to justice. Well, right here in D.C., Guatemala has an ambassador who represents the government of President Otto Perez, a former Guatemalan Army general, an officer of genocide-implicated elite commandos and head of the G-2, who could almost certainly find the answers to these questions if he wanted to. But you might as well ask the dead.
Peniel Joseph asks W.E.B. Du Bois:
How were you able to translate the hard numbers of social-science inquiry about racial inequality into such passionate and intimate portraits that combined history, sociology, literature and psychology so successfully? As a historian, writer and biographer interested in civil rights, race and democracy, I am fascinated by writers who are capable of transcending specific disciplinary boundaries to illuminate the universal aspects of people’s lives, histories and stories.