The first part of this interview covers Ivan’s favorite authors and their influence on his work.
Ivan started in nonfiction, writing articles for Dynamic Doingness, Inc. in April of 2011. He has written 89 articles since, with subjects ranging from mathematics, science, economics to world culture and history. In 2014, he started writing his debut novel, Eye of the Moon, one chapter at a time, over the course of three years.
This portion of the interview is about his process and the difference between fiction and nonfiction writing.
Q: What can you tell us about your writing process?
A: It’s puzzling. I ask for two things every morning when I wake up: inspiration and flexibility.
Inspiration comes to me in a way I can hardly fathom. I think the ancient Greeks had it right with the concept of a muse. I cannot begin to say how all the pieces in that novel managed to fit together. It would be like someone giving you a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces, and then you put them together without looking and ending up with a picture that makes sense. When I start I have no idea where I’m going. I give thanks for inspiration when it comes, which I am happy to say is quite often.
Just the same, it is hard. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep faith in my process when there is no clear outcome anywhere in sight. It requires some courage, which would seem odd. The mind swirls with thoughts about how what I am writing doesn’t make sense, or nobody will like it, or I have no idea where I am going. It is so easy to give into those thoughts and so hard to press on. All one has to do is stop, and stopping would be so easy. I have a mantra that helps: be brave and trust my muse.
Besides inspiration, I ask for flexibility because I am always being interrupted with my day job and other obligations. To some this would be a curse. To me, it is a blessing. I end up looking differently at what I wrote, or an idea gets added. When all else fails, I go running. I head for the hills (literally, as our house is set against rolling hills). Ideas come to me.
As I wrote Eye of the Moon, I got more and more twitchy and uptight. I was painting myself into the most horrific corner, and I had taken over two years to do it. I had no idea what to do. I was quite desperate. I went running. Some distance into that particular run, I came across a jet-black feather* lying on the road. In my state, I figured this was an omen that was either really good, or really bad. Ten minutes later my head exploded with an extraordinary idea. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and the more I realized I knew how the novel ended. I went back for that feather. I still have it.
Q: How is your process for writing nonfiction different than that of developing your novel?
A: There are similarities and differences.
The similarities are that when I write an article, I usually start out in one direction and end up taking a different one entirely. It is not that the thoughts are off-topic—although that has happened—but my thoughts take unpredictable paths and end up making connections with other subjects and events that often surprise me. It’s a special moment when that happens.
The novel followed a similar trajectory. I never tried to work out the plot farther than the next chapter, and was often surprised at the twists the story took. Previous pieces dovetailed together and parts that were mentioned at the beginning that I had thought not particularly relevant became key much later. It was very surprising, and many of those who have read it can’t quite believe that it was written spontaneously from the very beginning with no plot or direction in mind other than the novel’s setting of Rhinebeck, and that the story’s action takes place over a five-day period. Those were the only constraints. I can barely believe it either, so they are not alone.
The primary difference between writing an article and a novel is that the novel has an unbounded length. Although first novels are supposed to be shorter than mine, I figured it should be as long as needed to tell the story. This also meant that I could start slower and build tension as well complexity. Articles are usually 2,000 words. The novel is some 160,000. With an article, a great deal of information has to be compressed into only a few words. I wrote the novel in the same way, with a lot that takes place in a short period of time. This allows the story to be wonderfully complex and, at least to me, very interesting intellectually. As with most books, I would rather have it longer, if it’s good; and a great deal less, if it isn’t. I liked it enough to make it long.
Photo by Ivan Obolensky.