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Writers Looking Back, Looking Forward

October 20, 2008

I’ve been reading and re-reading lately some old Ross Macdonald novels. One of my two copies of 1958’s The Doomsters is gathered in the “omnibus” collection Archer in Jeopardy, along with two other books: The Zebra-Striped Hearse and The Instant Enemy. In addition to enjoying indulging in these novels, I found myself very much admiring Macdonald’s Foreword to the collection — written 21 years after The Doomsters was first published — because of how it speaks to my own still-growing awareness of ways in which I craft my own fiction (and perhaps the ways that many other fiction writers are working as well).

“Most fiction is shaped by geography and permeated by autobiography, even when it is trying not to be,” Macdonald begins, and then tells the story of his own parents’ divorce and of the time he spent with various relatives and of his fiction’s indebtedness to the people who helps to raise him. He writes:

The dead require us to remember and write about them, but I think not to expose them too completely. Though their looming images stay in our minds and become virtually a part of us, they keep their own secrets. Their privacy is necessary to their continuing reality, and to ours. We reinvent them and ourselves out of memory and dreams. And we learn as we grow older to be grateful to the dead. They have cast their flickering shadows across ours, and quicken our reality and their own…. 

I love them better now than I did then, and through my stories I understand them better. Sometimes I feel that the stories were written by them to me, asking me to communicate their sorrows and explain their dreams. 

Having already decided to put this passage in this blog today, I was pleased this morning to see Bob Thompson’s latest article in the Washington Post: “At ‘Home’ With the Past,” a profile of Marilynne Robinson, author of the novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home. Thompson’s articles are my favorite features in the Post, and this one offers insight into how Robinson draws on the past — both old texts, old history and her own old memories — to shape her fiction. 

—Art Taylor

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