I don’t think Hemingway should be read or listened to either. We don’t want people writing like him. God knows, someone like Bissell or Heinz or Higgins should be avoided at all costs. By reading any of Mr. Leonard’s introductions to other author’s books, you realize how much he knows about great writing. Hell, he has only written 40+ novels.
I sent her some of the following:
For the Love of Books
115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most
Ronald B. Shwartz (1999)
(“Without realizing at the time I was looking for someone whose writing didn’t sound like writing . . . Richard Bissell came to the rescue.”)
During the fifties when I was learning to write, I was discouraged by most of the novels I read, their authors so wordy or omniscient, their pages thick with prose. An exception was Ernest Hemingway, bless his heart, I liked him immediately because there was often a lot of white spaces showing on his pages. Look at his short stories, “The Killers” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” Even when there wasn’t much white space showing Hemingway’s prose was easy to read and had a sound all its own, an heroic sound I loved at the time. I even liked Across the River and into the Trees.
But it was For Whom the Bell Tolls I think of as having the greatest impression on me. I read it, re-read it, and, during the early fifties, would open the book at random and read for inspiration, to get the sound. I began writing westerns because of the terrific market for the genre at that time, the idea being to make money while I learned to write; and I thought of For Whom the Bell Tolls, with all its guns and horses in the mountains, as a sort of western.
There was a problem though. Hemingway was so serious about everything; even, we’ve come to learn, about himself. If your style comes out of your attitude, how you see things, and if I was ever going to develop a style of my own, Papa was the wrong guy to imitate.
Without realizing it at the time I was looking for someone whose writing didn’t sound like writing, whose prose took on sounds of his characters. I liked Steinbeck’s sound pretty much; I studied the structure of John O’Hara’s dialogue in short stories; I loved Graham Greene’s attitude. passages that seemed so at ease, offhand, and yet packed with observations; I enjoyed Salinger’s real people, his specificity. (Later on I learned different ways of using the verb said from Raymond Carver.) But I didn’t find a writer whose attitude I felt like I shared - whose writing didn’t sound like writing - until I read Richard Bissell.
You have to understand I was in search of a style that would be most natural for me, one I could handle. I had learned early on what I was capable of - getting characters to talk - and what I could never in a million years be able to do well enough - write in the classic style of literary authors.
Bissell came to the rescue. He’s probably best know for 7 1/2 Cents, out of which came the musical The Pajama Game. The novel of his that hooked me was High Wire. The story is set on a tow boat pushing eight barge-loads of coal from St. Louis to St. Paul, up the Mississippi on a flood tide. Listen to Bissell’s sound:
I get a kick out of your big buddy Grease Cup and his old lady,” says the Ironhat. “You see him on the boat down here with them two big engines of his you would figure he was quite a big sensible man, but anytime he gets home there in St. Louis the old lady why she has him running around pissing in a tomato can; it sure beats the hell out of me, a man like him with a heavy license like what he has got, leaving some old two-bit girl from out on the edge of town lead him around by the nose.
Bissell taught me to develop an affection for my characters and not be too hard on them. Yes, and not to take writing books to seriously. Bissell wrote in his nonfiction work called My Life on the Mississippi: Or, Why I Am Not Mark Twain: “I also lectured to an English class at the University of Dubuque one time and told them how to go about becoming Famous Writers. This didn’t take very well because they all got married later and settled down on Granview Avenue except one girl who went on to Chicago and got pretty high up at Marshall Fields in the chinaware department.”
I’ve learned it has to be fun or it isn’t worth doing.
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