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Who’s Your “Fat Guy In New York?”

The Paris Review’s interview with Martin Amis has a load of great insight. It’s just another great one in their long series of outstanding author interviews.

I thought his answer to this question was particularly good:

When you are writing a novel, how do you start out? Is it with character or with theme? Or does something else come to you first?


The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, and a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do. It may be that nothing about this idea—or glimmer, or throb—appeals to you other than the fact that it’s your destiny, that it’s your next book. You may even be secretly appalled or awed or turned off by the idea, but it goes beyond that. You’re just reassured that there is another novel for you to write. The idea can be incredibly thin—a situation, a character in a certain place at a certain time. With Money, for example, I had an idea of a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film. That was all. Sometimes a novel can come pretty consecutively and it’s rather like a journey in that you get going and the plot, such as it is, unfolds and you follow your nose. You have to decide between identical-seeming dirt roads, both of which look completely hopeless, but you nevertheless have to choose which one to follow.

I’ve never wrote a novel, and it’s doubtful that I ever will.

But in my experience writing nonfiction, that “throb” or “glimmer” is exactly what I experience. It’s not a formula or a conscious process. You’re just thinking about one thing and that leads you to thinking about another thing and all of the sudden you realize, “Hey that’s something I should write about!”

You don’t know the details. You don’t know how it will develop. You’re not even sure if it will turn out to be an executable idea. You just know that glimmer is something, and it could be something good.

For me, that glimmer is a basic blog post idea—like the one on Friday about spoilers. Everyone hates spoilers, so what if I do a tongue-in-cheek post giving away the endings of famous books? Or it’s a goofy article idea for my job that actually turns into something usable.

So, to paraphrase Martin Amis, who is your “fat guy in New York?” Have you got a “glimmer” that you need to develop into something?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m halfway through a novel that started with a ‘glimmer’ that I wanted to write about fruit. Then some ants turned up and I was away!


    February 11, 2014
  2. Did Amis really use ‘Nabokov’ and ‘throb’ in the same sentence? Maybe its sophomoric ala Beavis and Butthead, but come on.


    February 11, 2014
  3. I have one of their collected interview books. There is a wonderful interview with Truman Capote.


    February 11, 2014
  4. I totally agree with Martin Amis. I have read an aweful lot of writing books. Most of them say first you get an idea of what your novel is going to be about. Like “I’m going to write a book about death.” Geez, who writes this way. I sure don’t. Even when I’ve finished the darn thing, I don’t know what it’s about. Other than it’s about a lot of things. Most of the time I start with a character or a picture and I write a scene. Then I start asking questions. In many cases, it’s as much a discovery to me as it is to the reader.


    February 11, 2014
  5. I have so many glimmers, it looks like a thousand points of light at night in my office. It’s frustrating to prioritize them.


    February 11, 2014
  6. this rings true for me, too! I always enjoy the “detective work” you do while reading each book.


    February 12, 2014

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