[This entry is a repost from my earlier, Goodreads blog.]
Lately, I’ve been intrigued by this quote from John Steinbeck on his book, East of Eden.
A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.
He really nails it with that imagery. My new novel, The Library of Lost Books, is no exception to this rule. For every winged flight of fancy there was a mangy mongrel. In fact, in some passages, mangy dogs with wings come to mind.
But, after all, it was my first novel, a sort of “learning” novel. It allowed me to understand characters, plot, tone, pacing and how they work and play out in a longer piece. It was an insightful and moving experience to see how the characters and the novel took on a life of their own. A life that would not always follow the dictates of its creator.
It’s funny how Steinbeck talks about a book, being similar to or having the likeness of a man. Jose Luis Borges’s work is a recurring theme in my novel. The Argentine was obsessed with mirrors and their supposed malicious powers. Somehow, I imagine old Steinbeck staring at a mirror and just seeing his book inside it, instead of his own face. I think he would see the shabby, careworn parts of the tome clearly, but would miss the finer features, the better parts of it.
What writer hasn’t seen himself, but his book, when he looks in the mirror?
At any rate, I’ve never read the book this quote refers to, East of Eden. But I think it would be a fun experiment to read a chapter from his diary of the book and then read a chapter of the book and see how faithful he is to his daily plan for the book. Recently, a friend of mine said he didn’t care much for East of Eden. Which might just be my friend’s bad taste or might indicate that it’s a bad idea to keep a diary of a book as you write it. Sometimes, it’s good not to over-think things.
For the source of the quote, see the original letter here on Letters of Note.
And for those of you out there who are STILL paying attention, check the blog this weekend.