Leading Men

By Janet Somerville

International Dublin IMPAC award winner Colum McCann, bestselling crime writer George Pelecanos and this year’s American novelist darling, Philip Meyer, joined Globe and Mail books editor Jared Bland to discuss compelling characters—and anything else they damned well pleased relating to the writing life—on Sunday, November 3._TB12996

For Meyer, a good character “appears to support ideas of a book in an organic way. Their thoughts and speech rhythms have to work with themes. And, you’re learning the voice and physicality of each as you write.” In his two most recent books, Pelecanos said that, “writing a younger character like Spero Lucas has allowed me to get energy to write about sex. And, I prepared by reading Roth.” But, his favourite character is Derek Strange, the one most unlike him. For McCann, “the way a character comes along and knocks you sideways and holds contradictory things” is endlessly fascinating. He insisted that, “you have to pretend it’s easy when it’s difficult, when underneath you’ve got torn ligaments.”

In creating the indelible, complicated frontiersman in The Son, Eli McCullough, Meyer noted that it “was a happy moment in some ways because I’d found the key to the book. He seems the most compelling because he’s in an extreme situation, having been kidnapped.” About Derek Strange, Pelecanos said the character is “like guys I looked up to in D.C. He keeps an office on the street so kids can watch him turn the key and see what a man does. And, he screws up with women a lot, which is true for any man. Once you figure out who the characters are, they write the story.” McCann observed that you need “to catch the moment in flight. To abandon yourself to whoever the character is. Sometimes the characters lead me in the most unusual way. It’s interesting that we have as much responsibility to fictional characters as to real characters in the world like Frederick Douglass in Transatlantic.”  His best advice: “You should write towards what you want to know.”

Meyer begins a new piece without researching, “by writing to the limit of my knowledge.” Though, he said, he read approximately 250 books about Texas as he was writing The Son, “because I don’t have the confidence to put words down. The first time I saw the galley of my book, I thought, this is all I’ve got to show for five years?” Pelecanos interrupted, graciously insisting, “If you haven’t read The Son, it’s the best book of the year. Discovering that Meyer was a Michener Fellow, he added, “you know these little arts grants make these kinds of books possible. It’s the price of a tank that’s never going to be used.”

About his own process Pelecanos said, “I get letters from guys in prison. I do reading programmes there. And, I think, what can I learn today that I can use in a book. I’m proud that I’m at the top of the bestseller lists in prisons.” Because The Son is rife with sensory detail, Meyer explained that “I know what a deer smells like and I can tell if it’s a buck or a doe.” He learned how to quarter a buffalo “because the animal was such a central force for the people I was writing about.” He went so far as to “drink a cup of blood from one of them, which was obviously disgusting.”  McCann tells his students at Hunter College, “I can’t teach you a damned thing. Process is about stamina. You have to force yourself to sit there. If you can foster stamina, desire and perseverance, you can make it as a writer.” Meyer added, “it comes from a place inside you and you trust instinct and feeling more and more. You want to move the reader through with rhythm and pacing. Storytelling is like a symphony,”

In Transatlantic, McCann admitted, “I wanted to braid these things together: those who made history and those who suffered history—and they’re as important to the political and social process. We all know that history is agreed upon lies, so let’s make it more democratic.” About editing himself, he remarked, “I try to look forward 20 years from now and ask, will I be embarrassed by any of this then?” Meyer added, “I try to shut out every other voice but my own. A character doesn’t have to be sympathetic, as long as they’re fascinating.” Pelecanos observed that his protagonist in The Double, Spero Lucas, is “the only guy who is a killer. True Grit is my favourite novel. Maddy Ross is not very likable, but the voice is enduring.” On writing for The Wire, he added, “We were just trying to depict people as they are in the city. Omar is the moral center. He never swore. He observed Sunday truce.” Before that collaborative writing experience, Pelecanos had never been in a room “where other writers were critiquing what I was doing. I was told often, it’s too on point. As a result, in my novels I’ve gone to my strength, which is dialogue. Writing how people talk.”

About endings, McCann said, “An ending can only go one particular place. I will write in a fever of 16 to 18 hours a day.” For Meyer, “it’s a feel that it’s done. You don’t go back and tinker with it.” And, Pelecanos added, “I rewrite at night what I’ve written earlier that morning. The end just comes. It should end when it feels right.”

Final words from each of them about their chosen craft: McCann: “You can’t believe only the good stuff. You must also believe the bad stuff. It’s the natural corollary;” Pelecanos: “You have to go to work every day. I treat it like a job. I get dressed. Remember, John Cheever used to put on a suit to go to his desk;” Meyer: “You need to be doing this because it is in you to do it.” Story is a river running through all three of them. And, we readers are all the more fortunate for such flow.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.