“The Goal Is Emotional Truth” —A Conversation with Simon Van Booy
Hello, dear readers! Next month on July 13th, I'll be having a conversation with writer Simon Van Booy for the Mercantile Library. In case you don't know who he is yet (although if you have ever read this blog, you absolutely do), Van Booy is the award-winning and best-selling author of fifteen books. He has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, National Public Radio, the BBC, and the Chinese edition of ELLE. His books have been translated into many languages and optioned for film. He also happens to be in my top 10 favorite writers of all time.
Next month, we'll be talking about his new novel, Night Came with Many Stars. We'll also be talking about the art and craft of writing, and his many other novels and short story collections. In advance of the event, I asked him some questions about these very things. Below is just a brief preview of what you can expect when you tune in on the 13th! I do hope you will join us for what promises to be a fun and enlightening literary evening.
Ericka McIntyre: Night Came with Many Stars is your fourth novel for adults. How did the idea for this one come about? How long did it take you write? What do you want readers to know about it?
Simon Van Booy: This one took about two years to write, but was 28 years in the making, as I’ve been collecting the stories from the family in Kentucky since I was 18. Like all my books, I have a vague idea of what I want to write based on emotional connection, but once I start writing, intuition takes over and I end up with something that surprises me.
EM: This novel is written from multiple characters’ perspectives, which is a technique some of my favorite writers, like Elizabeth Strout and Leah Weiss, also use. What are the challenges of telling stories this way? The advantages? How did you decide which voices would tell the story of this novel?
SVB: I decided to use a voice I knew very well, Samuel’s voice, and one I didn’t know at all. But of course, all characters are versions of the author, and people from the author’s life, like a sort of collage, where you can’t identify any seams. There are disadvantages to using multiple POV, and one is that I feel you can lose a sense of the intimacy through the inevitable division. Another is that you can lose a sense of pacing, if one story/POV dominates too much.
EM: More than one of the characters in your books struggles with alcoholism, and it’s a topic you handle with so much sensitivity. What about that topic interests you? Why do you choose to write about it?
SVB: Well, I think Nietzsche said that anyone remotely interested in happiness will stay away from the stuff, and I’m inclined to agree. I’ve been sober since 1999. Though I do like visiting vineyards when I’m in France, and I appreciate how to most people it’s an extension of the culinary experience. But for me it was a shortcut to deep and lasting unhappiness.
EM: What is one thing about the craft of writing you wish more people understood better?
SVB: Get used to general chaos, uncertainty, and a sense of failure, with only flashes of brilliance, when writing a first draft. During the editing process those flashes of brilliance will get coaxed out and come to dominate the book. This is not something I knew before, but something I’ve learned both as an author, and now as a private editor working with people on their books.
EM: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
SVB: Read only books that you love. Don’t read out of obligation. And if you’re writing, then work only on books that you believe in, that you would continue to write even if there was no hope of publication. The goal is emotional truth, as that allows the reader to connect. Anything else is an impersonation of this.
Hope to see you on the 13th!
Until then, as ever, happy reading, and keep writing!