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  • Nick McDonell

    Thu, 01 Oct 2009 05:02

    Nick McDonell was born in New York City and is a graduate of Harvard University. The wunderkind of American fiction, he has published two previous novels: Twelve and The Third Brother.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing An Expensive Education Nick?

    Nick McDonell: There was no moment in particular. Because I had was traveling in Africa and recently graduated from college I started thinking about how the two places might be connected. Waiting in airports or hotels or dirt roads I started thinking about what kind of book I'd like to read, and kept returning to stories about spys and colliding worlds.

    Mark Thwaite: An Expensive Education is your third novel. Do they get easier or harder to write!?

    Nick McDonell: It is difficult to compare the process. I do know that as I get older more options present themselves, and so making decisions about what to write is becoming more difficult. But with practice some of the forms are getting easier -- like the narrative prose in this book -- or if not easier than clearer, I hope.

    Mark Thwaite: Your novel moves between Africa and Harvard, and deals with the inner workings of the American intelligence service -- was there a lot of research involved then? Was that something you particularly enjoy? What was the trickiest aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Nick McDonell: The research was really just hanging out in places were people talk about and sometimes are involved in the intelligence business. I enjoyed that tremendously -- particularly when it was in the form of researching a piece of journalism. I got a great deal out of a trip I too to Sudan to write about a mediator there. I wasn't embedding with the CIA or anything like that, but I was listening to stories of former guerrilla fighters in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front.

    That sort of stuff always gives me ideas for fiction. I don't know what the trickiest aspect of writing the book would be -- probably trying to stand inside the shoes of one of the characters, authentically see the word from another point of view.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Nick McDonell: I write straight into a laptop, print, edit in longhand, and then repeat that process for as long as it takes to finish the book. I keep notebooks too -- ideas for the novel go in there along with whatever else I am working on.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you know how An Expensive Education would end before you began, or was writing the novel a journey of discovery for you?

    Nick McDonell: I had an idea but only on the larger level. I wanted the characters to all make decisions that seemed 'right' but whose consequences were 'wrong,' at least in this particular fantasy.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing Nick?

    Nick McDonell: I am writing, reading, or researching most of the time. When I am in New York I run a weekly basketball game. I spend as much time as I can in the natural world.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Nick McDonell: I think about how the book is read more than the reader. An idea I got from Joan Didion is to always try to write something that can be read in one sitting. I remember something about John Updike saying that his ideal reader was a kid in a library in Kansas but I have never been able to visualize anything like that. It is important to me that I like what I write at least, and that is not so easy as it sounds.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Nick McDonell: I'm doing more reading and thinking than writing just now. I am interested in the motivations for intervention abroad, whihc is connected to this last novel. Now I'm more interested in pursuing the question in non-fiction, so I am trying to work out how to do that.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Nick McDonell: Too long a list to write, but right now my favorite piece of writing is an essay by Isaiah Berlin called The Hedgehog and The Fox. The title is taken from a but of greek positing that the fox knows many things while the hedgehog knows one big thing. Dante was a Hedgehog, Shakespeare was a Fox, and so on. Berlin uses this idea to look at Tolstoy's War and Peace and concludes that Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. I have been thinking that this piece has some resonance in the world of international intervention in conflict zones and, considered with Berlin's nuance (hard to do!), I think there might be something to the motivations of interventionists to be seen more clearly in this light.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Nick McDonell: Robert Stone, whom I admire tremendously, once said about writing, that writing "is goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not. You have to make yourself do it." I think that was something that helped me. The idea that you have to 'make yourself do it.' That is the 'tip' I would give to anyone who wanted to write, besides read everything.

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