American novelist Reif Larsen is the author of New York Times bestseller The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. The book, tracing the great trajectory of twelve year old genius cartographer T.S. was also adapted into a film by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) last year. Now Larsen has produced his second work, I Am Radar, which was published in March by Harvill Secker. This follows the story of Radar Radmanovic, and his mysterious origins and quest, in an epic exploration of identity, set across several decades and landscapes from New Jersey to Scandinavia, Serbia and Cambodia, taking in underground communities of puppeteers and particle physicists. Here the writer discusses his writing process and dealing with creative distance from his book, post-publication.
Reif, having now finished I Am Radar, how do you feel?
Awful! This is the worst time for a writer… I’ve spent the last five or six years working on this book, pretty intensively, almost every day and when you finish a book that’s this long, the tail is so long because you can turn it in but then you have to do the proofs, first pass and second pass. So now I’ve finally, for real, cut myself out of the equation. Now the book exists on its own. Without me. And it’s just a very strange feeling. It’s like I’ve fired myself. I’ve had the difficult meeting with myself where I told myself that I was now redundant. And it leaves you a little bit in the lurch, you know, because not only has your job disappeared; your way of being has disappeared in a way. You kind of have to pick up the pieces and figure out if, and when, and how, you will ever do this again.
Do you have a daily work routine and word count?
Yeah, I sort of developed a routine in the first book. The first book was different in that I was teaching at Colombia and going to school there and writing, so I was sort of doing it part-time. This book was different in that this was my full-time job, for five years, so, almost every day during those five years, I was either writing or doing something that produced this book. And when I’m writing I very much treat it like a job. So I try to get in the office by nine. I was living upstate so I had a little barn with a writing office, which was great – I was looking at the Catskill Mountains. So I felt very fortunate. I felt like the first book gave me a chance to write a second book and I was not going to waste that chance.
And so after that I did sort of hold myself to some standard. I just wanted to try to figure out how to write this book. So I would just show up every day and I would generally write from about nine to lunch and then I’d have lunch and then if I could stand it I’d write a couple more hours in the afternoon.
And before I write I do twenty minutes of Zazen meditation. That’s the first thing I try to do before I do anything else. But that became really difficult when I had a kid. Because I had to get the kid, before I did anything else! But the meditation aspect was really important for me because as opposed to jumping into emails or whatever, it bracketed the day into breath, mind, being. That was the most important thing… And then I try to put my butt in the day. I’m just a really big believer in putting your butt in the chair and showing up.
I have a pretty loose guideline – that I try to do three pages – a day. But that’s when you’re writing, that’s when you’re creating new pages. A lot of this book was revising. I cut out about 250 pages. So it’s been polished and polished.
There are the days when you write eight pages. But then there are the days when you really struggle to write half a page. And even though those days are the biggest struggle of all I think they’re also my happiest days. In the back of my head – even when I’m like slamming my head against the desk and thinking, ‘is this even a book?’ – because, for a long time I thought ‘this is not a book’ – this is a mess of messiness – I sort of knew, ‘you’re never as lucky as when you’re really struggling with a book’ because if you’re really engaging with it and really frustrated with it, it means that there’s something there, it means there’s something to wrestle – that you’re wrestling with something real. And then you feel, over the course of a couple of years, having put your butt in the chair for that long, something takes shape, you know? This world begins to get created.
It’s kind of silent magic. You don’t really feel it until four years in, when you think ‘Holy shit, I’ve created something here. This story’s beginning to be larger than me’ you know and then you get to this process and realise there’s a whole thing; there’s a whole universe.
So, when I’m working on a book… I’ve found that the regularity of it is pretty important.
Would you stop for weekends?
No. That’s the thing about being a writer – you’re always on the clock, so you can always not work but you always can work too, so maybe my weekend would be Tuesday or Wednesday. And I was never not thinking about it. If a book has enough momentum, particularly when you’re say three-quarters of the way done, everything that you encounter – it’s like this kind of sticky ball – will go in there.
Do you think writing gets easier with each book?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it ever will because I think one of the things that keeps it interesting – unless you’re churning out some serialized detective book that you just kind of do every year – is that you really have to learn how to write that book, in particular. And it demands a whole kind of language and style and you have to figure out: is it first person or third person, who’s the narrator, what’s your relationship to them, what’s their relationship to the subject? So, there is a lot of wayfaring going on. And that can be a really challenging process. I felt like I had to teach myself how to write this book a couple of times because there are basically five books in this book. The only thing maybe that grows easier is that you are aware of your habits so you can recognize patterns that you do.
But if it got easier then it probably wouldn’t be as endlessly interesting and fascinating. I’m never happier than when I’m really struggling with figuring out how to write something.
By Ella Windsor