JR. The paperback of my last one came out a few months ago, and I’m at work on two very different projects right now. One is contemporary in Mexico; the other is 1606 Venice. I’ve never written two at once, but it’s proving to be exciting, even if it is more challenging. We’ll see how it works out.
Q. When did you begin to write seriously?
JR. I was 28 or 29. I decided that political theory wasn’t for me, and I got the idea for that first book, The Overseer. There was no pressure, so I don’t know if I really thought about it as “serious” writing (there’s the old chestnut: you have a lifetime to write your first book, about a year to write your second). But somewhere in there I began to think, “Maybe this is what I’m meant to do.” I got lucky and have been allowed to do it ever since.
Q. How long after that were you published?
JR. I started The Overseer in late 1993 or early 1994. I finished the first draft (a very economical 750 pages) in July of 1996. By happenstance, I was working a translating job and someone else on the job heard I’d written a manuscript and said he had a friend in Lectures at William Morris. He said he’d be happy to show the first chapter to the woman at WM. I sent it to him, he sent it to her, and three days later, the woman called and said she had sent it on to someone in Literary. Three days later, the agent in Literary called and said he needed to see the rest of the manuscript. I sent it over and, two weeks later, I signed with WM. My agent had been an editor, so he helped me trim the manuscript down to 525 pages. We sent it out, got rejected, sent it out again, and then Holt, Crown and Harpers all came in with offers. We went with Crown in June of 1997, and the hardcover came out in June of 1998.
JR. I don’t know. I think you have to find whatever it is that makes writing a need for you, and that’s purely idiosyncratic. And then commit yourself to it. Writing a novel is like any long-term relationship. There’s the infatuation at the beginning, but then the feelings mature. And it can be hard. But it’s the best kind of hard you’ll ever experience if you keep your focus.
I also think taste plays a large role in any of the arts. I suppose we can all look at a select group and say, Yes, those are great writers, but even then, I don’t know. I’d be hard-pressed not to include Graham Greene on that list or Ivo Andric or Joan Didion, and some folks can’t stand any of them. Is there something that ties all the greats together? Maybe it’s that, if they ever wavered, they never gave up entirely. Even Kafka. If Kafka (by my lights in the top three of all time) could muscle through it, then anyone can.
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