Lily Tuck: How to learn through writing

Tuesday, 10 April 2012 09:40 Written by 
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Born in Paris, Lily Tuck is the author of four previous novels: Interviewing Matisse, or the Woman Who Died Standing UpThe Woman Who Walked on WaterSiam, or the Woman Who Shot a Man, which was nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; and The News from Paraguay, winner of the National Book Award. She is also the author of the biography Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and are collected in Limbo and Other Places I Have Lived. Lily Tuck now divides her time between Maine and New York City.

At the risk of falling into the trap of Qui s’excuse, s’accuse, I very muchlily tuck jacket wanted, when I began this novel about a widow’s all-night vigil beside her husband who has died suddenly, that it not be construed as being autobiographical.  In fact, I fell over myself backward, to have everything in the novel – the characters, the setting, the events – be completely different – despite the fact that I am a widow -- from me or my life.  For instance, Philip, the husband in the novel, is tall, dark, thin while my own husband was stocky and blond, Philip is a mathematician, my husband was a lawyer, Philip was born in Wisconsin, my husband was born in Belgium….  I could go on and on pointing out differences.  Not long ago, I read an article in The Atlantic Monthly by Bret Anthony Johnston who is the director of the creative writing program at Harvard and, in it, he writes how he always advises his students to write about what they don’t know.  I agree with him.  If one writes about what one does not know, chances are one will surprise oneself as well learn something new (as opposed to writing what one already knows which offers no surprises and, as a result, may become boring or a cliché).   Both surprising oneself and learning something new keeps the writing of fiction fresh on the page.  In my case, in this novel, I learned a lot about math – physics and quantum mechanics – and although, as a student in high school I had been good at math – in fact, better at math than in English and, had times been different, who knows, I might have become a mathematician – in any case, I had no idea how much I would enjoy and how much I would learn researching this novel.  Also, and this is my point, the real payoff, so-to-speak, as it turned out, was probability.  Probability theory which I write about – since, in the novel, that is Philip’s mathematical field – and which, at the outset, I knew nothing about, became the metaphor for the novel.  More than that, it was a unexpected gift.
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