Sunday, September 12, 2010

William Gibson and the Creative Process

William Gibson is one of my favorite authors.  I’ve read everything he’s written, starting with the science fiction classic Neuromancer, which a mentor of mine gave me in college.  His more recent novel Pattern Recognition is set in our own disturbing post-9/11 world, and it's one of my top-ten favorites in any genre.  When people praise Gibson, they usually talk about his ultra-sensitive ear for cultural weirdness and technological trends, but I think his knack for weaving multiple plotlines together is equally admirable.  He’s also crazy for detail, which makes his books creepy and atmospheric in a Blade Runner kind of way.  Just check out this description of a young Japanese girl encountering London, from the opening chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive:
The snow fell more thickly now, and the featureless sky was lit with a salmon glow of sodium lamps.  The street was deserted, the snow fresh and unmarked. There was an alien edge to the cold air, a faint, pervasive hint of burning, of archaic fuels.  Petal's shoes left large, neatly defined prints.  They were black suede oxfords with narrow toes and extremely thick corrugated soles of scarlet plastic.  She followed in his tracks, beginning to shiver, up the gray steps to number 17.
He doesn't describe everything about the street, but this paragraph engages multiple senses, and I feel like I'm shivering on the steps with the main character, wondering what's behind door number 17.

Mr. Gibson is promoting his new release, Zero History, and this week he came to the Bay Area as part of his book tour.  Feeling very lucky that I live here, I went to The Booksmith to get my signed copy and hear him speak.  Maybe it’s his recent attraction to twitter (@GreatDismal)--he calls it "the most efficient novelty aggregator yet invented"--but he’s got the one-sentence profundities down.  (My favorite one-liner: “The most intimate parts of human behavior, we know only through self observation.”  I’ve been trying to decide if I agree or not.)

Gibson talked about how he’s grown as a writer, saying he looks back at his earlier work and sees all the “duct tape and paste holding them together.”  He said, “When you first get started writing fiction, you get really good at leaving out the parts you can’t do.”  This made me think hard about what I leave out in my own work—what am I avoiding writing because I don’t know how to write it?  But, according to Gibson, these avoidances led him to some interesting stories, because he’d take his characters in different directions based on what he could or couldn’t get them to do.  And I have to admit, it's reassuring to know that even my idols are always trying to get better, always evolving.

To me, the most interesting part of an author event is when the author gets to talking about his or her creative process.  Everyone is so different in this respect, and I love hearing how people describe their unique methods.  Gibson talked about casting his books in his head, thinking of a warehouse where he’ll construct the story and asking his characters to show up for a “casting call.”  He claims to know almost nothing about how his stories will progress when he begins them, saying he lets the plot unfold subconsciously.  His books get the “prose equivalent of airbrushing” when he’s finished, which is where he says he folds in all those brain-searing details. 

I like Gibson's "construction" analogy for the creative process, but I tend to think of a new story as a big chunk of raw stone.  I chip away at it until I've got a rough figure, then I sand and polish until I've got a finished statue.  What about you, fellow writers?  How do you visualize your creative process?  And as a reader, do you care how the book gets made, or does it destroy the "suspension of disbelief" that makes fiction so absorbing?

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