Jonathan Rabb on writing fiction

Given my review of Rosa in the post below I thought it might be interesting to post a few quotes from Jonathan Rabb on how he approaches writing. Here he is on starting a book:

The process of writing a book starts, for me, with a place in time that I find intriguing. I begin to do a little research — if possible, with novels written at the time — and then, if all goes well, I experience a kind of flash of complete understanding a few weeks later. Every character, every setting, every moment of tension, choice, betrayal, and resolution comes into perfect focus. But only for an instant. It’s as if I’ve been given this one chance to see how the book is meant to be, and the rest of the process – the next year to year and a half – is spent trying to recapture everything from that flash. Of course, I never manage to get it all, but that moment floats above and acts as a kind of guide.

Luckily, there are some bits that remain clearer than others. The general arc of the book – the scenes that I know I have to get to – usually seems pretty well fixed, but what happens between the scenes is left for me to discover. And, I suppose, I prefer it that way. I’ve never been one for detailed outlines. I have the five or six scenes that stand out – usually those when choices are made and, later on, when consequences play out – but, aside from that, I like to see how the characters get from one place to another as they go.

Also of interest is how he approaches historical fiction or the type of books that he writes:

What resonates most strongly from the flash, however, is a connection with one or two of the characters. In my first two books, that wasn’t much of a stretch since the main characters were, to a greater or lesser degree, versions of myself. This time around, it was something entirely different, not just because the main character was someone I had to get to know, but because one of the characters wasn’t a person, but the city of Berlin. That might seem odd, but I’ve come to discover that place is as much a living, breathing thing as are the people who inhabit it.

Once all of that is in place, I go back to research. For my last book, I put together nearly fifty pages of single-spaced typed notes on language, settings, characters, clothing, etc., 95% of which never made it into the book. I do that because I have to feel absolutely certain in the world I’m creating before I begin to write, otherwise how can I expect a reader to accept that world as something possible. And that is always of critical importance given the type of books I write. My fiction is of the “what-if” variety. I like to find moments in history where there are gaps, or unknowns, and then play with what might have been. This is different from taking something we know and saying, “actually it happened differently.” I’m not one for rewriting history, or for distorting things we know to be true in aid of fiction. I take what we know surrounding the moment, make sure I relate it in authentic terms, and then create my own story inside the gap . . . As long as the reader trusts me in the first thirty pages or so – that I know this world, and that he or she is now stepping into it – what I then decide to create on my own will fit into that reality, and the reader will have no choice but to follow along.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).