Carole Burns

"Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JAN 7, 2008)

“And then I read more deeply.  I slow down and take in the complexity of each quote, the evidence of years’ worth of hard-won knowledge about fiction, the seriousness with which every writer included in this book takes the business of his or her craft.  It’s a lot more than repartee.  Theirs is a rich and varied dialogue about writing and literature.”

Off the Page edited by Carole Burns

In 2003, Carole Burns began conducting a series of interviews with a variety of authors for the Washington Post’s Web site.  She later mined the best quotations for her collection, Off the Page, an entertaining and thoughtful book that touches on “all the vital elements of fiction.”    Burns interviewed 43 authors from Pulitzer Prize winners to first-timers, and she arranged their comments into thematic chapters.  Some of the usual questions are addressed:  What are your sources of inspiration?  How did you come to be a writer?  What is the importance of revision?  What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to future generations of writers?   In addition, the contributors weigh in on the differences between creating novels and short stories, how one knows when a novel is finished, what the author should keep in mind when inserting historical characters into works of fiction, and the role of sex and love in literature.  The tone is delightfully informal, as if A. S. Byatt and Richard Ford were sitting in our living rooms chatting with us.  The conversations include passages of gentle humor, lighthearted banter, touching revelations, and even profound wisdom. 

This is an engaging compendium that can be read from beginning to end (as I did) or dipped into at random.  In these pages, the authors reveal a great deal about their methods, their artistic vision, and themselves as people.  Off the Page is not a handbook, but an intriguing glimpse into the minds of novelists who have brought events, places, and characters to life through the power of their skill and imagination.   “There is no magic formula, no set way to write a book.”  The ways of approaching the craft of writing are many and varied: John Irving writes his last sentence first, Michael Cunningham starts with a particular character in mind, for Paul Auster, the story takes center stage, and E. L. Doctorow bases his creations on an evocative image that he wants to explore more thoroughly.

Marie Arana states in her introduction that writing is one of the most difficult professions a person can undertake; therefore, “writers, having lived through the agonies of purgatory, deserve to climb straight to heaven.”  The remarks in this volume give a good sense of the many obstacles a novelist must overcome.  He must create a narrative that satisfies him, find a publisher, and hold his breath until he learns whether or not the critics and the public embrace or reject his creation.  This is not a task for the thin-skinned.  Since “good writing looks so effortless,” few of us truly understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into this risky and frustrating undertaking.  Reading Off the Page provides a fascinating window into the writer’s exhilarating, fulfilling, laborious, and sometimes agonizing world, “filled with equal portions of desperation and joy.”

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About the Author:

Carole BurnsCarole Burns is the host of "Off the Page" on washingtonpost.com.

Her fiction has been published in literary journals and magazines such as Other Voices and Washingtonian, and her nonfiction has been published in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Awards include an Artist Fellowship from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Mary Roberts Rinehart National Award in Fiction, and she has been a fellow at The MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

A senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Winchester in England, she is currently working on her first novel.

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