Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read John Saul’s fiction piece, Alhambra
Sommer: This is a very moving, beautiful story about grief. I think one of the dangers when writing about grief, is composing writing that is too overwrought or sentimental; too emotionally self-conscious. Yet, you avoid this in “Alhambra,” and the narrator’s grief is, nevertheless and consequently, palpable. How did you approach writing grief in this story? Was there anything you told yourself you would not do? Any suggestions to other writers when writing about sadness?
John: You touch on a more general aspect of writing. The overwrought or sentimental is highly problematic. The only way to counter or avoid it is to be authentic. Writing has to sound right and give a real, true picture. Any writer in thrall to mawkishness or flowery phrases will come unstuck. Gabriel García Márquez can write the most beautiful prose, but it only works because he is writing something we recognize as genuine and authentic. A suggestion to others? Beware of the beautiful phrase. Or even the beautiful word. It may fit but it may undo your whole story. Be prepared to get rid of anything, for the sake of the whole.
I think another danger when writing about grief is trying to write your way out of it so that the story ends on a positive note. I’ve observed that American readers in particular seem to prefer happy, funny stories. Sure, grief is ok as long as it’s funny and quickly dealt with. Your story is quite funny in parts, but I admire how you don’t shortchange the story or the narrator by deflecting the severity of her sadness. The note ends somberly and, I think, perfectly. Were you ever tempted to end on a different, more optimistic note? Or to somehow lead your narrator out of her grief into an epiphany? What kept you from doing so?
Seeking to end on a particular note seems to me an unnecessary straightjacket. The ending of a story fits what has gone before. The only decision here is when or where to end. Otherwise, any calculation—as happens regularly in films, where, even as you watch, you can sense the team of writers chewing over what they see as the various possibilities—aimed towards comforting readers or audiences is likely to come across as contrived, artificial. Other than being well-written I recognize only one yardstick in writing fiction: that it be honest and true.
With grief or any other subject, it wouldn’t occur to me to somehow look for a happy ending, or to look for a sad one either. The neatness of a happy ending, in particular, is at odds with our lives and times. Having been fed the comfort food of a happy ending, it becomes easy for us to zip up a piece of fiction and walk away from it, as if it is sealed off from the other parts of our lives. That’s escapism, and that’s fine. But, well, it’s escapism—and that’s odd. As well as being enjoyable, shouldn’t fiction enlighten or add to our experience?
Happy, sad, or whatever, the clunkiest ending of all is often an ‘epiphany’, not a notion or even a word I care for. Around for well over a century, this idea is getting very worn down. It rather mocks the rest of the story—why bother writing or reading the rest, is it just a lead-up to the ending? Aren’t authors still seeking to be inventive—so why slavishly follow what I see as an old-fashioned notion? Fiction can do so much more than just obey a simplistic formula.
Rob is such a fantastic foil for the narrator and an integral part of the story. His rant in the beginning is hilarious. Did you know ahead of time that this story needed more than just the narrator? How did you come to “invite” Rob into a story that seems so personal to the narrator? So internal?
The interaction tells the story. Without it I would have had to write something very different. Almost to start again. I’ve no idea what the story would have been, if any, without him.
Alhambra is ancient. It’s been built and destroyed and rebuilt a thousand times over the centuries, mirroring the generations of humans who live and die, and over again. This always reminds me of the layers of teeth in a shark’s mouth, and the way they slough off. But how did you determine upon Alhambra? Were you aware, from the beginning, that that’s where the narrator would travel, and why? Generally, how integral do you think place is to a story?
As you say, the Alhambra is a bits-and-pieces kind of place, which up to a point fits the theme of my story. I might have used a different setting, but the Alhambra felt right. Possibly it helped—helped the story—for the narrator to see something beautiful and find her enjoyment of it muted. I suspect that often part of grief is the way it diverts us away from what we would otherwise appreciate.
Generally but not always, place is a vital part of a story. It may be the story. One of my favourite authors, António Lobo Antunes, wrote the wonderful novel Fado Alexandrino. It is actually a portrait of Lisbon.
What’s your advice to writers on handling rejection?
The simple answer is to toughen up, if you can. It is entirely normal to be rejected. Get on with your work, not with ruminating over rejections.
Adding just a footnote to that, I employ a helpful ruse. I keep a record of submissions and acceptances and rejections, and there is a pattern to it. I know that one in seven or eight replies will be an acceptance, so I simply wait for the inevitable (acceptance) to come around. Only if the rate got worse might I even think about it, but over years it has stayed remarkably constant.
And a second footnote: don’t let the word ‘submission’ take over. It isn’t you down there and editors up above. ‘Presenting’ might be a better word. With a few splendid exceptions, editors are no more judges of work than authors are. I submitted a story I was utterly convinced by for ten years before it was taken, and then I was very well paid for it. So there are happy endings, too.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me!
Your questions went to the heart of things, I was glad to try and answer them.