In their respective novels The Gargoyle and Stealing Athena, Andrew Davidson and Karen Essex both tell parallel stories that take place in two different time periods, intertwining the lives of people separated by centuries. The books also explore common themes of the mystical, the mythic, karmic debt, the creation of art, and romantic love. In a candid and uncensored phone conversation, the authors compare their writing processes and talk about the sometimes numinous, sometimes laborious procedure by which they create stories and bring their characters to life.
(Click here to listen to entire conversation: )
KE: Hi Andrew. When I wrote to you I said that Doubleday had sent me a galley of The Gargoyle before it was published and I read it…
KE: … and I really enjoyed it…
AD: Ah, thank you.
KE: When Anchor asked me to participate in this dialogue, even though I am on a deadline, and I am rather far behind at this point, I was going to skim The Gargoyle again, but the truth is that I have now re-read every word of it, because I was just enjoying it way too much.
AD: Well, I apologize.
KE: So if I’m late on my deadline, I’m just going to say call Andrew Davidson, it’s all his fault.
AD: I think that’s a very wise… blame me, that’s the way to go.
KE: Uh huh, I will.
AD: Okay, good. Before we get into the question, what’s the deadline? Do you have another novel coming out? Or is it an article of some sort?
KE: I’m here in London, writing my next novel, which is a Victorian gothic novel, and it’s due in November.
AD: Okay, we’re going to come back to the question that you’re just about to get to, but my question to you before we get to that question is: how are you so unbelievably prolific? Because I just finished reading Stealing Athena, which was great, by the way…
KE: Thank you.
AD: … and there’s a lot of words in it. How did you get another book out of your body so quickly?
KE: I am remarkably unblocked in most situations, though Stealing Athena was the hardest thing I ever wrote.
AD: Why was that?
KE: Well, it was because of the enormous amount of historical research that I had to assimilate, and then spit out into a narrative that didn’t sound like a history lesson.
AD: But still, Stealing Athena was only two years after the book that came before it, is that correct?
AD: Wow. I’m sorry to get on this….
KE: Quite all right.
AD: But seriously I am in awe. I just don’t know how you can write that much.
KE: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because people always ask me what my process is, and I always say my method is the obsessive-compulsive method of writing. Which is, that once I get going on something, I almost don’t let it go. In a weird way. Someone once asked me if I took weekends off, and I just laughed, and I said, “I take my work with me to the bathroom.”
KE: And I wasn’t kidding. I’m trying to correct these measures now, but….
AD: The interesting thing is that I write, I think, by that obsessive-compulsive method a bit as well, but what it ends up doing for me is dragging me off down alleyways that are incredibly fascinating, and I write twenty or thirty pages about, but I discover that it ends up being one paragraph in the finished work.
KE: Right. Well, The Gargoyle was your first novel. Correct?
AD: That’s right. Yes.
KE: And you wrote it without a deadline.
AD: Without any deadline whatsoever.
KE: Right. So I had the same experience. My first novel was Kleopatra, it took me about… it took me seven years from the time I thought about it and began to research it to the day I sold it, to what was then Warner Books. So… and I did a lot of research that took me down fascinating alleyways, which had nothing to do, in the end, with the finished book. But I’m here to inform you that now that you’re a big success…
KE: … you’re going to have to learn to write faster. And you will.
KE: My experience has been that you now have a readership, and your readership is waiting for you.
AD: Right. But….
AD: …my feeling in my case is that, umm, I mean I’m certain that I could put something out in two years, but I don’t know if my readership would be happy with it, because I know I wouldn’t be.
KE: Yeah, this is… I think this is one of the issues that we novelists deal with, and I… This is what separates what I would call, for lack of a better word, a “career novelist”…
KE: … you know, from someone who has a story or two in them. I think that it takes a brain-shift, almost, to transform oneself into a person who can write to satisfy a readership. And I don’t mean that that’s the primary goal, that we should be feeding product to our readers, but I look at people who are writing thick, idea-driven books like Philip Roth, and John Updike, and the late Iris Murdoch—these are all incredibly prolific people.
AD: Really, really are.
KE: So at some point I think they made that shift. And I think that you’re at the beginning now, so I bet you that if we had this conversation in five years into the future, you wouldn’t be so concerned about it.
AD: Well, you know, I think it’s interesting. Because I don’t think it’s necessarily—I completely understand what you’re saying, first of all—but I don’t necessarily know that it’s exactly what you’re talking about, as much as it’s just the different ways that people create. For example, I mean, in music, you’ve got, say, Leonard Cohen versus Bob Dylan. And at some point Bob Dylan was putting out an album every fifteen minutes, and Leonard Cohen puts one out every four years if we’re lucky.
KE: Um hmm.
AD: And that’s just how they approach it. And… recently, I’ve been going through the work of John Fowles. And I…
KE: Oh yes!
AD: … and I’m absolutely loving his writing, and the books are so different, and he, I think, produced only seven novels in his life. Well, I mean clearly, here’s a “career novelist” who is just not somebody who writes in quite that quick way. And it’s not better or worse, obviously. The one thing I’ve discovered in this last year and a half, where I’ve actually been meeting professional writers, because I didn’t know anybody before that, is just that everybody works in ways that absolutely surprise me. When I talk to other writers and they say, “Well, this is my method, this is my process,” sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from blurting out: “REALLY? That works for you?”
KE: I think my favorite weird process story is that of Graham Greene, who got up early every morning, put on a beautiful suit, wrote exactly five hundred words, would stop mid-sentence, once he had reached his five hundred words, was often done by breakfast time, and then would go sort of be a social butterfly, go and hang out with his wealthy friends on yachts in the Mediterranean.
AD: Which is not a bad process at all.
KE: No. Why can’t I learn that one?
KE: I don’t really see it forthcoming, but that’s the process I would most like to learn.
AD: And why can’t I learn it, either? Interestingly, in Stealing Athena, there’s—you talk about the “daimon,” the indwelling spirit inside people…
KE: Uh huh….
AD: At one point during the writing The Gargoyle, I wrote a five-page tangent on the history of the word “daimon,” which obviously never made it in. In the finished version of The Gargoyle, the word gets referenced once. I needed to write my way through those five pages to know that it didn’t belong in the book at all.
KE: Um hmm. No, I can see that, and I—but I do think that the more that you experience the form of the novel, the more proficient you will be at not needing to go down those roads.
AD: Well, you know, we’ll have to have a conversation in five years and see if I’ve learned anything. (Both laugh.) All right, so let’s go back, I think I interrupted you mid-question, about five and half minutes ago, maybe a little more….
KE: Yes. Well, now that you’ve said that you don’t want to talk about personal things, I’m going to just pretend you didn’t say that and I’m going to ask you, if—because your book is so vivid—I’m going to ask you if you were ever, like your character, either a pornographer, or a burn victim, or a substance abuser.