It takes some kind of chutzpah to pitch a publisher an idea for a book about a 2,000-year-old poem, which, discovered and restored by a 15th-century book collector, helps to usher in the Renaissance. And in the hands of a lesser writer, that book would have been roundly rejected. But for Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt, it was a chance to tell a story, The Swerve, that landed on the bestseller lists and bagged both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Widely praised, the book earned high marks for Greenblatt’s ability to offer a density of ideas without ever making the reader strain in effort; the book, noted Dwight Garner of the New York Times, feels like “well-brewed coffee with plenty of milk and sugar stirred in; it’s a latte, not an espresso.”
This wasn’t, of course, Greenblatt’s first effort. His biography of William Shakespeare was a chart-topper, as well as a critical smash hit. So we’re thrilled to have Stephen Greenblatt as one of our interview subjects in Writing Routines. The interview below dives into how Prof. Greenblatt works and what inspires him—and gives us a rare window into the inner thoughts of a writing talent.
8:30 to 9 am. I am almost as predictable as Kant. Never late at night. Easier, usually, in the afternoon, after banging my head against the wall all morning.
For the most part, I work sentence by sentence—that is, not with a list of key words, a set of phrases, or an outline and not, alas, in a great rush of feverish insight. If—as occasionally happens – I see my way forward, I scribble a list of places I hope to go, and sometimes that helps. But almost always for me it is one sentence at a time (often rewriting the same sentence over and over again).
Silence. I cannot work while listening to music. If I cannot get silence, then just something random, like talking in the background, is okay.
I’m very happy with myself if at the end of a full day I’ve written 5 pages, but that rarely happens. I feel miserable if I haven’t written anything.
I tend to edit heavily and repeatedly as I go along, so I don’t make the distinction, at least by myself. For the books that I’ve written for a larger public, however, I’ve had the help of an immensely gifted editor (Alane Mason, at Norton), so there I do separate out the tasks: in effect my own writing/editing; and then a further editing after receiving her suggestions. I tend to hate the latter experience, though I recognize that it is almost invariably good—a bit like swallowing disagreeable but essential medicine.
I’m happiest if I am telling a story. I tend to sense its pleasures and excitements within me, but that doesn’t mean that I’m writing for myself and then only later thinking of an audience. Why not? The simplest answer is that if the story is any good, it bears telling and retelling to oneself, as if one were hearing it for the first time.
Very occasionally—and usually under the pressure of a deadline—I write a short piece very quickly. Even then I tend to rewrite the sentences, but not as often or obsessively. And I am relieved from the burden of trying to weave things together and create a larger flow.
It’s more my friends—friends whose writing I particularly admire – that I read and try to channel, rather than books on writing. So I love the way Adam Phillips writes, for example, or Luke Menand, Bernard Williams, Robert Pinsky, Adam Gopnik, or Jill Lepore. And there are others. I am fortunate in my friends.
On both ends. It is strange that it should be both, but it is.
In some sense, forever, in some sense, never. For the former: at my mother’s knee, since it was she who loved to write and helped me with my writing. For the latter: Like many scholars, I have a weird inhibition about thinking of myself as a writer and have to fight constantly against myself and my profession to allow myself to recognize that what I’m doing is, after all…writing (as distinct, I suppose, from “research”). Having said that, my undergraduate honors thesis, on modern satire, began, “All over Evelyn Waugh’s England country houses are being torn down”; and my doctoral dissertation began: “Sir Henry Yelverton was no friend to Sir Walter Ralegh.” I’m still proud of those sentences, so even back then I must have had some aspiration to becoming a writer.
I am reluctant to say, any more than one would name a favorite child. But for its sheer wealth of wild material, I’ve loved working on my current book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. And I found a particularly deep pleasure, some time back, in writing Hamlet in Purgatory.