An interview with Andrew Wille
Book doctor Andrew Wille works with writers editing manuscripts, teaching workshops and mentoring. His goal is to help writers create the books they want to write. He also blogs and you can find him on Twitter @andrewwille.
You’ve worked in publishing for over twenty years and been involved in some acclaimed projects. As a child, which books inspired your love of reading?
Dr Dolittle, the Little House books, Narnia. Encyclopaedias and atlases. The Book of Lists. A bumper book of Disney fairy tales. The Moomins, always the Moomins; earlier this year I fulfilled a dream of visiting Finland, and now I can die with those happy memories. The Hobbit – I was introduced by my hippie aunt, and knew this was taking me somewhere serious when I saw that dragon on the cover.
Many of these books belonged to series. There was some pleasure in knowing whole worlds lay beyond the covers of the first book. Something beyond The End.
Television was also important, especially Watch With Mother. The Clangers! Later, I was editor on a series of Clangers books. [Rendered speechless.] I think Oliver Postgate’s narrating voice was perhaps the most important thing to send me into the world of stories. And now we discover they’re coming back for a new generation. [Rendered speechless, and filled with trepidation.]
You studied, and later taught, creative writing at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado (amazing name!). It sounds like a unique environment to consider art and literature, and perhaps become one of the ‘mad ones’ Kerouac refers to in On the Road. What made you choose this as a venue for your studies?
Come on: the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?! How could any Englishman with a hippie aunt and a passion for American literature refuse the chance of studying there?
Wise move. It’s a distinctive education that we find at Naropa. The Kerouac School was founded by beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman along with Tibetan Buddhist guru Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It is more like an art school than a conventional English department. I’m not Buddhist (and neither are most people in the writing department), but I now consider myself a fellow traveller, and everyone there understands that we encounter something meaningful in the contemplative approach to education – meaningful in ways I can’t describe. Actually, I think it’s the inability to describe that is special – you’re digging deeper for something, slowing down, seeking questions rather than grappling for answers. It’s a fantastic pedagogical approach for any creative practice – for all fields of life, probably.
But the thing that really told me I had to go to Naropa?! Its mission statement described the need for a sense of humour. I know we can’t legislate for humour, but that seemed very special. I had to go there. The world needs more Naropas. The world needs more possibility for humour and contemplation and madness built into what we do.
As a professional book editor, do you ever struggle to enjoy reading for pleasure, especially when faced with obvious errors in the text?
Sometimes. What is an error, though? Typos are forgivable, if I’m given a wonderful story; sometimes I even email the publisher about mistakes so they can be corrected in the next printing.
Factual errors can bother any reader. I just sampled the opening of an historical novel that refers to a famous building that I (and many others) would believe fell into ruins a century before this story begins. Eek! That might be a hard one to recover from: this was not fantasy or magical realism, and the illusion of reality the book is creating is fractured somehow. The writer is a good writer, though, so maybe fans can read with imagination (or ignorance), and let that slide.
Prose style, however, is another matter: if the writing is too flat or unengaging, the book usually joins one of the piles of the unread. For me, being bored is a greater struggle than any typo.
What bothers me more than errors is overhype, which is something publishers and the media are very good at. But that is an erring outside the writing.
With the rise of self-publishing and degrees in creative writing, a lot of aspiring writers are taking control of their own work. Do you think the quality of writing has suffered because of this, or are we becoming better at editing our own work?
Anything that empowers writers or gives them ways to improve their writing must be good. That being said, many self-published books feel like rushed first drafts, or as if they’ve never been read by anyone other than the writer before they were published. Of course, some of these books are successful regardless, and that’s no bad thing – sometimes perfectly presented writing is plain dull, and something with a few rough edges has a raw energy that can be alluring. And let’s not forget all the great names in the Self-Publishing Hall of Fame: Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz …
It could help if self-publishers more clearly understood what takes place during the different editorial stages of production – structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading – and then built those stages into the creation of their books. At the very least, they should enlist help in eliminating the typos (especially if spelling is not your strength). A fresh eye can spot what you miss through overfamiliarity.
Production standards have come on leaps and bounds. Once upon a time, you’d open a self-published book and your heart would sink simply because it was set double-spaced in 12pt Times New Roman on really bright white photocopier paper (a book is not a manuscript). Nowadays you do spot the occasional dud, but self-published books often feel more professionally produced than those put out by the big houses.
Some self-publishing writers are a bit tiresome in how they promote themselves quite aggressively. They’re more like crazy-eyed cult leaders from some pyramid-selling scheme from the 1980s. And then you sample the writing, and you realise they are marketers, and not writers or storytellers. In which case, maybe marketing is their true calling?! Or: maybe they could work a bit more at developing the craft of writing.
The support of any creative community can be life-changing. But I wonder if workshops and writing groups can sometimes create a circular energy of writing by committee. (‘Discuss.’) Writing-in-progress needs readers, but sometimes it also needs its writer to give it periods of solitude too.
A concern about creative writing in general is that some writers seem more interested in publishing than in writing. A grasping, utilitarian quality has crept into the mindset, and maybe that accounts for some of that rushed element in the writing.
If writing suffers today, I suspect it’s more likely to be because of computers, which can encourage people to go on and on (like me here), and then when writers do revisions they are often picking away at an earlier draft rather than putting some spark into a new one. Imagine the olden days of fountain pens and typewriters, and how much freedom a new draft could enjoy.
All the same, I love me some Scrivener.
As well as being a book doctor, you also write fiction and have published a number of short stories. Which writers have been your biggest influence in this genre?
Angela Carter. Annie Proulx. Ray Bradbury. Ursula Le Guin. Alice Munro. Christopher Fowler. Sherman Alexie. Gustave Flaubert.
I must mention a very brilliant teacher from Naropa called Bobbie Louise Hawkins. She’s from Texas, originally, and in her own words she’s ‘a talker’, Her insistence on writers trusting their natural speaking voices in their writing has been profoundly important to me. She is a spellbinding storyteller and prose stylist, and though it is no longer fashionable to describe writers this way she is also a great social realist – really observing the magic and humour of ordinary lives with great clarity. She’s also a wonderful gossip, and places gossip at the heart of much good writing. She really should be more widely read.
Even though I don’t write poetry, it’s been inspirational to hang out with so many poets at Naropa; they care about every word they write, and they also write for love rather than money.
Some of the greatest inspirations, though, are unpublished writers I work with. Their enthusiasm can be infectious, and their discipline and ambition remind me I really ought to make more time for my own writing.
Which books are you planning to read next? Do you have any that you secretly suspect you’ll never get round to?
The Luminaries. Morrissey’s autobiography. And Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall is waiting for me. I am a Peirene Press subscriber, and I love how they publish: novellas in translation; a subscription model; three books a year sent by mail; elegantly hosted salons and themed evenings. Peirene expands books beyond their covers.
Anything I’ll never get round to? Never say never! (At least with reading and writing …)
Are there any books you started but never finished?
I blame working in publishing: you start lots of books you don’t finish, for whatever reason. But I’ll repeat a wise thing that I heard Kate Grenville once say at a writing festival in Sydney: it’s okay not to finish books. You take what you need, and then your bookmark holds a spot. Maybe you’ll come back and finish one day, but maybe you won’t, and that is fine. There are too many good books waiting for us to read. Let’s not get mired in stodge and guilt.
Likewise, you have to be ready for some writers. Took me years to get Virginia Woolf. And I had to go to Naropa to understand that Gertrude Stein has to be read aloud really to be appreciated.
I’m terrible for buying books and having piles of them lying around the house waiting to be read. How do you prefer to read: are you a Kindle addict, library regular or a paperback collector?
I love the tactile quality of books. My fave read is a small-format hardback that sits easily in the hands (e.g., Oxford World Classics). A clean, open typeface like Baskerville helps. I also like elegant trade paperbacks with French flaps or deckled edges, and the smell of library books takes me back to the mobile library on Saturday mornings.
But so many books nowadays are printed on bad paper and poorly bound, or have crappy covers. So increasingly I like to read on my iPad. I find I read it faster than print. I zoomed through all of the Game of Thrones books back to back a couple of summers ago. I probably prefer the first-generation Kindle, which looks clunky but has no glare and one purpose only (no Web distractions), but the iPad has a larger and cleaner display (when out of sunlight).
Some publishers don’t design covers for their ebooks, which is cheap and lazy and cheats readers.
I possess too many unread print books haunting me in their needs for reading and real estate [peers nervously over shoulder at piles atop bookcase]. Unread ebooks, though: out of sight, out of mind.
I’m a bit obsessive about my books and keeping them as undamaged as possible. Do you have any pet hates about the way other people read or treat their books?
I really don’t like people using books as coasters. It’s a sin.
And finally, do you have any random/funny/bizarre stories about books to share with us?
Many! Especially involving publishers. Random tales involve a giant map of the world, strange shoes, and things that go on under Blackfriars Bridge. One friend told me a story last night about pretending to be deaf when she met an author whose book she’d not read. Oops! Even in these corporate times, people in publishing are such fun, joined by their love of books and gossip.
If you’re a blogger, writer or book lover and you’d like to take part in Space on the Bookshelves, get in touch! You can email me at amy(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)tenpennydreams.com.
[END/AW: 30 October 2013]