“I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list – the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it.”
From Conversations with William Gibson edited by Patrick A. Smith. While I love this quote, this particular interview conducted in 2011 by David Wallace-Wells is excellent as a whole. An extended version of the exchange is below but you can read the whole thing over on The Paris Review, “William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211.” (Paywall.)
David Wallace-Wells: How do you begin a novel?
Gibson: I have to write an opening sentence. I think with one exception I’ve never changed an opening sentence after a book was completed.
David Wallace-Wells: You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?
Gibson: No. I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes, shopping list as I write it. It’s like that joke about the violin maker who was asked how he made a violin and answered that he started with a piece of wood and removed everything that wasn’t a violin. That’s what I do when I’m writing a novel, except somehow I’m simultaneously generating the wood as I’m carving it.
E. M. Forster’s idea has always stuck with me—that a writer who’s fully in control of the characters hasn’t even started to do the work. I’ve never had any direct fictional input, that I know of, from dreams, but when I’m working optimally I’m the equivalent of an ongoing lucid dream. That gives me my story, but it also leaves me devoid of much theoretical or philosophical rationale for why Me story winds up as it does on the page. The sort of narratives I don’t trust, as a reader, smell of homework.
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