If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
As Bartleby had said, “I would prefer not to.” A writer can have influences and I would replace ‘mentor’ with ‘guiding spirits.’ A writer, for better or worse, is affected by every writer whom he or she reads; and I say, for better or worse, because writers have to decide for themselves through some kind of aesthetic process which writers ‘speak to them’ and not get caught up in the ‘why.’ They also have to sort through a lot of bad writing. If your subject varies with genre then there are multiple influences. One mentor can be limiting and almost Freudian à la ‘the anxiety of influence.’ It is better to have several writers as models for how language can be used. There are few great writers.
Shakespeare was a poet and playwright who gave no thought to ‘originality’ and yet all of his works express the range of the human condition. He stretched the English language in creative ways. It was his achievement. Writers should imitate those they admire, read broadly, and along the way find their own unique voice. I also think writers should have some exposure to another language and literature. It gives you another soul and another dimension through culture and history.
A mentor, if present at all, shouldn’t be another writer, but a teacher of language and literature who can impart good habits, the nuts and bolts of sentence construction, and then leave the writer to his or her own devices. A writer must be a self-educated reader and craftsman after that. The rest is up to the writer. That is where writing is a solitary act. You sit in room with spirits talking to you. You may never know whether you are good or not. It reminds me of Borges’s statement: “When writers die they become books.”
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Writing from the point of view of a child or the opposite gender is difficult. When to use or not use profanity is also important. I would have to say that when it comes to editing, I am more focused on dialogue.
Speech has to be authentic to the character and to the context. It has to flow. If you pick up George Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, for example, a reader familiar with the story can turn to any page, read a line of dialogue and know exactly which character spoke that line. That is Higgins’s mastery. People speak in contractions, fragments, and use fillers. Characters’ diction betrays their education and social class, while their syntax indicates their emotional state. It all sounds intellectual, but write an inauthentic line and a reader will see it immediately, will tell you, No woman would ever say that, or that is inappropriate to what has been developed thus far for a certain character. Dialogue is one way that readers can see characters developing. Each voice has to be unique. I believe people read for character, forgive on plot, but dialogue is what makes the character come alive and the reader coming back for more.