Narrative 10

Narrative has a few burning questions for Justin Cronin.

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?

For the top spot in fiction, I’d have to go with Humbert Humbert. He’s morally revolting, but his language is so ecstatic you have to listen to him. The best characters are like this—full of contradiction.

In life—what else?—my kids. They’re completely different from each other. My daughter is quite cerebral, jaded, ironic, funny. My son is an open book, no carapace at all. If he thinks it, he says it.

2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote)?

“Life is weather, life is meals.” —James Salter, Light Years.

3. The story, novel, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time.

The same: Light Years. I read it every year. This is nothing planned; I just gravitate back to it at regular intervals, like a comet making its parabolic sweep around the sun.

4. Best part of the day?

I make myself write a thousand words a day. I’m allowed to write more, but never less, and when I reach a thousand, I’m free to knock off if I want to. It gives me a small jolt of accomplishment, the feeling that I’ve earned my place on earth for the day.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

Exercise. I try to do something that makes me pour buckets of sweat each day. It’s a healthy habit, but that’s not why I do it. My best ideas come when I’m aerobically hypnotized, and things that seem difficult or even impossible at the keyboard suddenly feel much easier.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

Don’t know about ten, but I’m a big fan of then. A novel needs a lot of thens.

In life, I’m afraid to say I curse a lot. Or so my wife tells me. Oh, well.

7. What’s your current obsession?

Tennis. I play all the time, work with a couple of coaches, watch tennis instructional videos online, follow the pro tour. Last year I went to Roland Garros for the French Open. The game has changed completely since I was a kid. It’s much less stately, much more athletic and explosive. I’m still kind of bad, but at fifty-one, I figure this is my last chance to improve my game before I stiffen up too much. My goal is to become good enough to make a high school varsity team.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

Many years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked to publish one of my stories in its Sunday magazine section, but it needed to be 30 percent shorter, because that was all the space they had. I had only two days to do this. I calculated the number of words I had to remove and began tossing things out the window as fast as I could—anything that didn’t feel absolutely essential. It became a much better story, and to this day I use the same practice for everything I write. Once the piece feels done, I pick a percentage—usually 10—and cut it from the manuscript.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now you wish you knew then?

Nothing. Childhood and adulthood are different, and they’re better if they stay that way.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

Some of love is pure astronomy, but not all of it is sleepwalking on the roof. When you argue with your spouse, you should obey two rules. Never parody the other person; never use the words always and never. The fights will be shorter, and they’ll be what they’re about (the unemptied dishwasher, the bounced check, the late arrival at the party) and nothing else. Nobody can haul out that inevitable list of grievances accumulated during a couple of decades ping-ponging around the same rooms, which is good, because when that happens it’s Defcon 1, everybody scrambles their bombers and turns the keys to launch their missiles, and the next thing you know a minor border skirmish has turned the house into a wasteland irradiated with stupidity and regret. So I suppose the truth I’d tell Auden is this: Don’t be dumb. People are people, even the beloved.