James Kaplan (right), author of the acclaimed new Sinatra biography Frank: The Voice, is a writer of great skill, style, intelligence and success. His books have appeared on The New York Times bestseller list and his shorter pieces have been published in the biggest and best magazines.
What may be most remarkable about Jim is his ability to write so well in so many forms. The spectrum of his work spans the following: biography (Frank: The Voice), short stories (in The New Yorker, Esquire, Narrative Magazine, etc.); novels (Pearl’s Progress, Two Guys from Verona); narrative reporting in book form (The Airport); collaborative autobiographies (Jerry Lewis, John McEnroe); personality profiles (in The New Yorker, New York, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Parade, etc.); screenplays; and personal essays (including pieces he wrote for us at Tennis magazine during my tenure as an editor there).
I asked Jim if he would share a few thoughts about writing, and he graciously agreed.
• Can you define one common element of storytelling you strive for across the spectrum of what you write? And offer a few words on how you work on that element?
A compelling voice. Something in each of us is either grabbed or not grabbed by a storyteller’s voice, and I think as a reader when I write. Is the voice I’m creating believable and interesting? Is it one that a reader would want to spend time with? Is it one I, the writer, want to spend time with? Every one of my books has had a different voice. Of course in the collaborative autobiographies (McEnroe and Lewis) I attempt to re-create the speaking voice of the subject. This requires a good ear as well as a good eye for what’s happening on the page. In fiction I suffered for years from anxiety of influence — it was hard to keep Salinger and Hemingway and Updike out of my prose. My first novel had Saul Bellow distinctly in mind. But by my second novel, ten years later, I’d come up with a voice of my own. Easier said than done.
• In Frank: The Voice, as well as in your journalism and as-told-to books, you are creating a story from reporting notes and interview transcripts. In personal essays, you are working from personal experiences. In fiction, presumably you are making up the people, places, events and arc of the story. Is one type of story easiest to write, and one hardest? How do you reboot when changing from reporting to essay to fiction?
All writing is back-breakingly hard. But having the armature of notes, research, and transcript when writing nonfiction takes away the terror of the void that can be so debilitating when writing fiction. With my last novel I outlined the plot pretty carefully ahead of time, which made me feel less lonely and helped expedite the process. To shift from writing fact to fiction, I shift my voice to a different register. But rules are made to be broken.
• You’ve taught writing at Wesleyan and other places. Is there a most frequent shortcoming or mistake you see in the way aspiring writers try to tell a story?
The merciless truth about teaching writing, in my experience, is this: It’s either a matter of gentle correction, in the case of a student with talent, or of trying to achieve the impossible, in the case of a student without talent. To aspire is not enough — one is either born with the gift or one isn’t.
• Do you have one or more commandments for writers? Any specific to fiction?
One of the greatest commandments for writing was related to me by my mentor William Maxwell: Leg over leg and the dog got to Dover. Meaning, tell the story in chronological order and avoid many pitfalls. I’ve found this to be true in both fact and fiction. I’d also say that no writer can go wrong sleeping with a copy of Strunk & White under his or her pillow.—Alex McNab