New School professors Jonathan Dee and Patrick McGrath paired up for a Fiction Forum on October 2nd, hosted by Helen Schulman. After reading from their latest works, discussion between the authors came to the topic of multiple drafts and lost work. Mr. Dee spoke on his experiences as a younger writer:
“It was hard to find time to work on my writing, so I didn’t want to waste any time when I finally got the chance to write. I became a compulsive outliner. Now, I make myself start writing before I fully know what’ll happen. I throw out more of my writing now, but I’m happier with the results.”
Asked about their approach to deciding whether their novels ought to be in a first or third person voice, Dee related that writing in the first person doesn’t come easily for him. “I think more panoramically, so my material comes that way.”
McGrath, on the other hand, said, “I can only emote and give feeling from first person. I don’t have the ability to scan the world. In first person, the main character can imagine what others think, and characters can show what they’re feeling through dialogue. There’s no right or wrong way. It depends on how you approach your material.
As McGrath’s latest work is split between two character’s voices, he was asked to explain how he decided what chapter belonged to which character. “I didn’t want to seesaw between the two characters – that’d be predictable and dull. My decisions were more intuitive. If I knew a character would tell a chapter better, then I would let them tell it.”
Helen Schulman noted that morality is central to each of Jonathan Dee’s novels. There’s a tradition of his novels having unethical characters. Dee responded that his characters might be unethical at times, but he allows them to live on the page without judgment. “The characters judge each other. I never want to have authorial judgment on my characters. In fact, I think it’s a mistake to have an author’s judgment in the book. A writer’s job is to frustrate the reader – keep the reader’s opinion of the main character changing.”
Jonathan Dee has published six novels, including The Lover of History, The Liberty Campaign, St. Famous, Palladio, The Privileges, and, most recently, A Thousand Pardons. He is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and contributor to Harper’s. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and The New School.
Patrick McGrath is the author of a short story collection, Blood and Water and Other Tales, and seven previous novels including Asylum, Martha Peake, Port Mungo and Trauma, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. He has also published Ghost Town, a volume of novellas about New York, and his latest novel Constance. Spider was made into a film in 2002 by acclaimed director David Cronenberg. Patrick McGrath lives in London and New York. He teaches at The New School.