Author Chats: Julian Barnes


I took Ethan Rutherford’s advice and started reading interviews and posts on The Paris Review. One of the interviews I came across was conducted in 2000 and featured author Julian Barnes. Barnes has won the Man Booker Prize once, been shortlisted for the same award several times, and has been awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature. In the 1980s, he wrote crime fiction under the name Dan Kavanagh. One great thing about The Paris Review is that they show images of the authors’ marked-up manuscripts. Below is an image (lovingly taken from the website) of his 2000 novel Love, etc.

You can read the interview in its entirety on The Paris Review here or by clicking on the manuscript page above.

I wanted to highlight one particular passage from the interview in which Barnes talks about the writing process

BARNES—I think you should like the process [of writing]. I would imagine that a great pianist would enjoy practicing because, after you’ve technically mastered the instrument, practicing is about testing interpretation and nuance and everything else. Of course, the satisfaction, the pleasure of writing varies; the pleasure of the first draft is quite different from that of revision.

Paris Review—The first draft is fraught with difficulty. It’s like giving birth, very painful, but after that taking care of and playing with the baby is full of joy.

BARNES—Ah! But sometimes it isn’t a baby, it’s something hideous and malformed; it doesn’t look like a baby at all. I tend to write quickly when I’m on the first draft, and then just revise and revise.

PRSo you rewrite a lot?

BARNES—All the time. That’s when the real work begins. The pleasure of the first draft lies in deceiving yourself that it is quite close to the real thing. The pleasure of the subsequent drafts lies partly in realizing that you haven’t been gulled by the first draft. Also in realizing that quite substantial things can be changed, changed even quite late in the day, that the book can always be improved. Even after it’s published, for that matter. This is partly why I’m against word processors, because they tend to make things look finished sooner than they are. I believe in a certain amount of physical labor; novel-writing should feel like a version—however distant—of traditional work.

PR—So you write by hand?

BARNES—I wrote Love, etc. by hand. But normally I type on an IBM 196c, then hand correct again and again until it’s virtually illegible, then clean type it, then hand correct again and again. And so on.

PR—When do you let go? What makes you feel it is ready?

BARNES—When I find that the changes I’m making are dis-improving my text as much as improving it. Then I know it’s time to wave good-bye.

PR—What do you use your computer for, then?

BARNES—I use it for e-mail and shopping.

—”Julian Barnes, The Art of Fiction No. 165.” The Paris Review No. 157 (Winter 2000)

I much appreciate what Barnes says about the process of writing—that it should be enjoyable, because you are practicing and improving with every word. I like that he makes it very clear that the first draft is not the final product, but that you can still derive pleasure from the first draft. (I’m working on that skill.) And I like that he actually keeps on improving his drafts until he isn’t improving them anymore—it’s always difficult to know when to step back and say something is finished.

What did you think of the interview? To read more wisdom from successful writers (e.g. not me), click here for a list of Author Chats.

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