Interview by Johnny Damm
JD: I’d like to start by asking you about what must be the largest logistical change here, shifting the war memories from WWII to Vietnam. What dictated this choice and at what point in the process did it occur to you?
MP: This was a very late, and reluctant, change. As the story developed the age of Elijah proved to be a continual stumbling block. Simply put: he was too old to make believable certain moments. I wanted him to be a WWII vet for sentimental and thematic reasons. The lateness of this change is proof of my stubborn refusal to submit to what the work is telling me. His experience as a veteran is integral, however, hence the shift in wars. The change was reluctant not only for the above reasons but because it required not only reworking his backstory but reworking the imagery that described it. This section was born of the imagery, so changing that felt particularly difficult.
JD: In making that change, you also do something amazing in the third paragraph: “Pete Harris” becomes Jesus Christ. A fairly literal fragment of the old man’s memory—watching a comrade die—becomes strangely more revealing when shifted to the fantastical, ultimately giving the reader, I think, a stronger sense of the old man as a character. How did this revision come about? Did you surprise yourself?
MP: I originally wrote the piece with Jesus as the ‘victim.’ But as the novel progressed my sense was that the thematic element of ‘the death of faith’ or what have you, was becoming too heavy-handed. I wound up trimming a great deal of later references which opened up space at the beginning for Elijah’s dream imagery. I needed this, I think, because it front-loads the book’s thematic concerns, making clear—I hope—what is at stake while allowing character to drive the story.
JD: There are several great examples here of straight forward line editing, where small removals make a large impact (i.e. “He needed to get up and stop this shit before it made him any crazier” becomes “He needed to get up before it make him any crazier.” The cutting of “He poured out his juice” and “He looked disgusted with himself.”) In the original version, these passages read just fine, but they are unquestionably stronger once trimmed down. How did you recognize these spots, and how can less somehow make a character or scene more vivid?
MP: Anything you can compress—and still retain sense—is more powerful than what came before. Very often I tend to clutter a description or insight with three or four mediocre details when a single perfect detail eludes me. I deceive myself into thinking that when quality is absent I can somehow make up for it with quantity. This isn’t the case, of course, and revision is often a process of trimming out the excess so that what remains exists in an undiluted form. Zadie Smith talks about scaffolding when writing early drafts: you build the scaffolding so that the building can go up. But when the building is up you have to remember to take down the scaffolding. It takes me a long time to determine what is scaffolding—what is necessary for me to write the story—and what is the building—the story itself.
JD: You also make larger cuts of some quite nice language (i.e. “Dead fish floating in shell craters foamed with rainbows of diesel…). When you make these type of cuts, does it feel, in fact, like you’re “murdering your darlings”? How do you deal with the difficulty of cutting well written sentences?
MP: It’s heartbreaking since my first love isn’t plot but language. My only technique is distance through multiple drafts: the more distance I get from a draft the more rational I become. Given time, I base my decisions about what to keep and what to cut on what works from the story. But it takes time for me to see this. I fall in love with the language first. It’s not until I fall in love with the story and the characters that I can cut what might work on a line-level but not a plot-level. But it’s still hard since I never fall out of love with language.
JD: I want to ask you about the small changes that are really quite minute but have an enormous impact. Two sentence edits really stuck out to me in this way:
Vers. 1: “He understood death on a cellular level, and put one hand on his abdomen to feel it circulate, just as he had felt it circulate for the last sixty years.”
Vers. 2: “He had come to understand death on a cellular level, and put one hand on his abdomen to feel it circulate.”
Vers. 1: “It was freezing and what mattered was coming. Day was coming.”
Vers. 2: “It was freezing and what mattered was coming. His boy was coming.”
Again, both original versions are excellent and effective lines, but your revision transforms them into something significantly more powerful. How did you recognize the need for revision? What, would you say, is the ultimate effect of these revisions?
MP: These are simply attempts at concentration of imagery. If figurative language works something like a spotlight, I want to move away from lighting the entire stage to attempting to light certain precise points. It’s also, I suppose, a matter of trusting the reader. In the first example, I cut the reference to time because I hope the persistence of death becomes evident through the actions of the character—to tell the reader is cheating, and somehow makes the claim less convincing. In the second example, I realized I had lost focus. Through Elijah is waiting for daybreak what matters is what daybreak will bring: the return of his son. Normally, I think one is much better focusing on the physicality of a scene—the temperature, the light, the smells, and so forth—but in this case I realized I was sapping the section of needed power. If this line works, it works because it closes the piece. It might not have worked elsewhere.
JD: How do you look past the polished surface of a piece—when it reads well, as this first version does—to see what needs to be further worked? Any final advice for writers bogged down in the revision process?
MP: Revision for me is a constant slog. I need time between drafts—that’s the most important thing. I also need to read things in and out of context. So I’ll read a work several times through to address issues of plot or consistency of character. But then I read chapters, and bits of chapters, out of context to focus wholly on the line-level issues. I’m constantly moving between the two and hoping that between them something begins to coalesce.