In the fat 500 pages of Writing Talk: Conversations with Top Writers of the Last 50 Years, literary columnist Alex Hamilton conjures the book world of the 1960s and 1970s very much as you may have imagined it – a land of late night animated conversations about the fate of poetry, whether the short story can survive, what it means to create your own universe, and whether an author’s a sellout to his tribe if he writes not with passion but for money.
I’ve been fortunate to talk to so many marvellous writers. Gathering some of these conversations into a book, rather than their brief life in a daily newspaper, offers a chance for readers to share my pleasure and to introduce a new generation to some past greats.Alex Hamilton
Some of the “top writers” you’ll meet in Writing Talk: Graham Greene, R.K. Narayan, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Pablo Neruda, James Mitchener, Ed Doctorow, Daphne du Maurier, Norman Mailer, Michael Innes, Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Rebecca West, Stephen King, James Heller, Gunter Grass, John D. MacDonald, Anthony Burgess, Gore Vidal, Brian Aldiss William Golding… Oh, it’s not possible to list them all, the authors and poets and even a few cartoonists (Hergé, the creator of Tintin for one) who come under Hamilton’s pen.
Go straight to the table of contents and pick out the name of a favorite author; begin from there and branch out at whim.
Writing Talk is, wisely, organized into sections loosely by genre. Wisely, I believe, as it allows the reader to dip and sample – as one would have read (some of) the columns in the collection as originally published, in the Books sections of The Times and The Guardian – according to one’s reading tastes.
Not all of these articles will appeal to all readers, and in any case it’s not a collection intended to be read in a linear fashion, nor necessarily as a whole. Rather, it’s a sampler of Alex Hamilton’s work – 85 columns chosen by the author from hundreds published under his byline. It’s interesting to look at what he’s selected to show us and to speculate on the rationale for each choice, however. Odds are that you will end up reading all of this book, but perhaps over a period of months or even years, as the mood takes you and your own interests evolve.
At his best, Hamilton vividly recreates the experience of sitting down in a bar or at a conference, in the author’s home or in a hotel room, with some of the Big Names of the time – Ed McBain in the Mystery and Thriller section, for example, or Jacqueline Susann in Romance and Erotica, or perhaps John Updike in Short Stories, the form for which he was first best known.
To read one of these “conversation” pieces is rather like eavesdropping on a literary hero as he holds court, but doing so by invitation. We are taken into the room and given a comfortable chair and allowed to listen in.
Hamilton has the gift of changing his voice to reflect that of his subject – writing in shotgun sentence fragments for the hard-boiled American pulp fiction writer, taking a gently reflective tone for conversation with the lyric poet – and the change in tone from one piece to the next can be disorienting, if one reads a number in a single sitting. But the sense of immediacy and reality is ample pay-off.
Great fun, too, are the snippets of literary gossip dropped en passant, and some truly wonderful quotations from writers on the craft and on each other.
In Hamilton’s chat with mystery writer Edmund Crispin, for example, we learn that Agatha Christie, MacDonald’s friend and neighbor, “was much more amusing as a person than her books would lead you to suppose” and had the devil of a time to find something to read on a train journey, as the bookstall at Paddington station had nothing but row on row of Christie’s own books.
American novelist J. Forrest Ackerman was “sporting Bela Legosi’s Dracula ring on one hand and Boris Karloff’s on the other” when Hamilton met him at Brighton Worldcon 1979, the massive gathering of science fiction writers and fans. Ackerman, who is credited with inventing the term Sci-Fi, had attended every Worldcon since 1939 (except one) and won a Hugo Award in 1953 , “not for a book, but as Number One Fan Personality.”
John MacDonald’s first literary agent was “the only man licensed to carry a swordstick,” a mark of police respect for his accomplishments in the sport of fencing at the 1920 Olympics.
Mickey Spillane wrote the endings for his books first, before knocking out the rest of the plot. “You don’t read a book to get to the middle,” he told Hamilton. And, “The hardest thing in the world is trying to write when you haven’t got anything to tell.”
Alex Hamilton has plenty to tell, in Writing Talk.
The 1960s and 1970s were a thrilling time in 20th-century book publishing. All was energy and New Authors and first-novel bestsellers come in over the transom, or so it appears in hindsight.
Behind every postal address, it seemed, was a fledgling imprint, with independent booksellers on every High Street to take their chapbooks and paperbacks. Newspapers still sold like newspapers, and they still covered the literary parties and printed in-depth book reviews as if writing mattered as much as celebrity gossip. Ah, it was a remarkable period in which to be a writer – “top writer” or merely aspiring – and especially in London, the hub, the cultural heart of English language literature. The pre-war and post-war “top writers” still at the top of the bestsellers list were gradually yielding shelf space (and Hollywood screen time) to a new generation of post-war writers.
I came into the book game just a whisper too late to enjoy that fecund time for literature, both highbrow and low, that was made possible by the mass-market paperback revolution – arguably the single greatest time for writers and publishers since Gutenberg was a tinker.
Chain bookstores were already starting to edge small bookshops out of business, then, and only the most prescient fully understood what the loss of independent booksellers would mean for hundreds of small literary or genre publishers and low-margin loss-leader imprints whose mission was to seek out new authors. As for ebooks, the brave new digital world was no more than a glint in an engineer’s eye, but vanity press and print-to-order outfits were on the rise, a harbinger of the self-publishing boom to come.
But at the literary salons and writers’ workshops, in smoke-filled university faculty clubs and boozy publishers’ conferences, we who were new to the industry sat spellbound at the foot of the literati, soaking in the funny, bitchy, sometimes poignant tales of the larger-than-life characters whose books had shaped us. Dipping into the pages of Writing Talk is a very similar experience.
Hamilton’s collection of literary essays, interviews and conversations is a treasure for anyone with a deep interest in books and writers: I suggest, for best effect, reading it with the manuscript of a first novel in your desk drawer and a glass of decent Scotch in hand.
Writing Talk: Conversations with Top Writers of the Last 50 Years, by Alex Hamilton, is published by Troubador, 2014. The book is available via Amazon in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and elsewhere – in print or in Kindle Edition.