The Books Interview

New Statesman (1996), September 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Books Interview


Your new book, The Anthologist, is full of poetry.

The narrator, Paul Chowder, is a poet trying to write the introduction to an anthology called Only Rhyme. He has these theories about rhyme and meter, which he's describing, as well as what is going on around him.

Do you write poetry yourself?

I did write some poetry in college. My prose style came out of reading 19th-century English writers like Thomas De Quincey, and even earlier writers such as Boswell and Johnson. And then I'd read these American poets -Howard Moss, William Snodgrass, Elizabeth Bishop. And I got tremendously excited by them and was inspired to write a certain kind of observational fiction--but I knew I couldn't write poetry.

Did you have to read a lot of anthologies?

I love anthologies--I have about a hundred of them--but in order to write this book convincingly I had to simulate what would be in a poet's mind at the age of 50 or so. To do that, I had a spell, a sudden burst, of extra reading and I let it moulder down. The way memory works is hard to simulate and that's one of the challenges. How do you make a believable retrospective person when you don't have the same kind of memory?

Voice is very important in all your books.

It's important to get the voice right. I spoke into an audio device; I spoke and typed at the same time, talked into a video camera. And what I found was that the first time I explained some of Paul's theories on poetry it came out a little stiff and forced. It was the way you'd teach it if you'd just figured it out. But this is a fiftysomething poet. He's had this theory kicking around in his head for years, so I had to rewrite it over and again. I was just trying to find the right way of saying it.

Are you a great reviser of your work?

I am a very inefficient writer. What I find is that the pages which work are those where the person is sitting somewhere, walking somewhere, riding an escalator. So that's what I use.

You write about tiny moments in people's lives rather than dealing with big plots. …

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