December 3, 2010


Steve Martin: The Interview (Jill Owens, November 29, 2010, Powell's)

Jill: In Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, you describe how much work and practice you put into your stand-up and your magic tricks, all of your work in those years. Do you do anything like that in terms of your writing?

Martin: I've been writing for a long time, since the late '60s. But it hasn't been in the same form. I used to write scripts for television. I wrote for my comedy act. Then I wrote screenplays, and then I started writing New Yorker essays, and then I started writing plays. I didn't start writing prose, really, until the New Yorker essays, but they were comic. I didn't start writing prose, really, until the '90s. In my head, there was a link between everything. One thing led to another.

In that sense, I've been practicing. Nora Ephron once said, "I don't care who you are. When you sit down and you write the first page of your screenplay, you're also writing your Oscar acceptance speech in your head." [Laughter]

I don't think anyone is ever writing so that you can throw it away. You're always writing it to be something. Later, you decide whether it'll ever see the light of day. But at the moment of its writing, it's always meant to be something. So, to me, there's no practicing; there's only editing and publishing or not publishing.

Jill: What prompted you to start writing fiction in the first place? What do you enjoy about writing fiction that you don't get from writing essays or plays, or even music or movies?

Martin: I really enjoy finding the right word, creating a good, flowing sentence.I really enjoy finding the right word, creating a good, flowing sentence. I enjoy the rhythm of the words. I haven't said this in a long time, but it's so true for me. When I was in college, I really liked poetry. I don't read much anymore. But my favorite early 20th-century poets were Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, and e. e. cummings. Looking back, here's what I think I learned from each of them. From e. e. cummings, I learned about the rhythm of words. From T. S. Eliot, I learned about the intelligence of words. And from Dylan Thomas, I learned about the beauty of words. I try to bring all three of those elements into writing. Then, of course, you have to tell a story at the same time.

So those are my goals in prose. [Laughter] Prose should be, unless you're writing an instruction manual, a kind of poetry.

Jill: I think you've preempted my next question, which was to ask how you think about the way you use language — it's so clean and lovely and almost fine-boned, I think.

Martin: Well, thank you. I do try to pare it down. I'm always trying to pare it down. I take editing seriously. It's a joy to edit. I always hand a manuscript to several editors and can't wait to get back their notes and see what they've said. I don't criticize myself for making blunders here and there, because it's just natural. You write in chunks, and you may not remember that that sentence you wrote yesterday had the same word repeated three times. [Laughter] I do enjoy that. I love the feeling of repairing. Repairing is really nice.

Nothing has done more harm to modern fiction than the demise of editing. Become a bestselling author and you'll never hear anyone tell you to change a thing, no matter how much your book needs it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2010 5:48 AM
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