“I don’t strike out much. I write on … I do one draft. I do the editing in my head first … I very seldom change paragraphs and things around … I’ve heard that it’s very useful for people who do move things about to have a computer, but it wouldn’t suit me because I just write on.” (BBC Radio 3 interview with John Tusa)
Muriel Spark’s minimalist approach to editing and revising her work appears to have differed markedly from that of the last author I featured in this little series. Spark is relatively unusual in having been a publisher’s editor herself, working for Peter Owen in the 1950s, an experience she memorably drew on in her novel A Far Cry from Kensington (more of which below). Owen has acknowledged her skill in the role and regretted that he hadn’t always heeded her judgement: “When she was my editor, she did want to bring in Samuel Beckett – and that was one of my mistakes.”
Another formative experience was a précis-writing course which she did in Edinburgh rather than going to university. As she explained to John Tusa: “Well, I always liked to keep it short, and I thought probably I would get some ideas how to express myself as briefly as possible. It was a challenge … I always wanted to keep it short and pithy.”
Her facility with composition was a subject she returned to when she spoke to Stephen Schiff for a New Yorker profile* in 1993: “I don’t correct or rewrite … because I do all the correcting before I begin, getting it in my mind. And then when I pounce, I pounce. I can invent very easily. It really seems to come through my hand.”
When interviewed by Mark Lawson for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in 2004 she spoke admiringly of Georges Simenon and the way he deliberately limited his vocabulary. This is in stark contrast to the practice of one of her greatest creations, Hector Bartlett in A Far Cry from Kensington. Bartlett is clearly based on her bitter experience as an editor of being stalked by an aspiring author with a huge ego and little talent to justify it. Spark (like her narrator, Mrs Hawkins) knew bad prose when she saw it:
“At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story … Pisseur de copie! Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.
‘Mrs Hawkins, I take incalculable pains with my prose style.’
He did indeed. The pains showed. His writing ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.”
Spark illuminates the well spring of her own beautifully limpid style in another absorbing interview with Eleanor Wachtel from 1999: “I consider that my books are mostly poetry, although written in prose, and not in poetic prose, but [with] poetic insight, I think … Whether it comes off or not … I leave that to others, but I do know the method.”
* The New Yorker article is available to subscribers only, alas.