Tag Archives: best quotes about writers

A Storyteller Can Remind Us that the Swallows Still Sing Around the Smokestacks

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory. A storyteller can attempt to tell the human tale, can make a galaxy out of the chaos, can point to the fact that some people survived even as most people died. And can remind us that the swallows still sing around the smokestacks.”

American author, Jane Yyatt Yolen (born 1939) has written more than 365 books in the fantasy, science fiction and children genres. Her best-known work is the historical fiction novella, The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988), about a 12-year-old Jewish girl, Hannah Stern, from New York who is travels back in time to Poland in 1942 to experience the Holocaust. Stern witnesses the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand while living at a work camp. Ultimately she understands the profound importance of learning about the past. The novella won the National Jewish Book Award in 1989, and the television film adaptation (1999) was nominated for a Nebula Award. Yolen was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2009.


Writers Are Defined by the Words They Use

atkins bookshelf quotations“In the most basic way, writers are defined not by the stories they tell, or their politics, or their gender, or their race, but by the words they use. Writing begins with language, and it is in that initial choosing, as one sifts through the wayward lushness of our wonderful mongrel English, that choice of vocabulary and grammar and tone, the selection on the palette, that determines who’s sitting at that desk. Language creates the writer’s attitude toward the particular story he’s decided to tell.”

From Writers on Writing (Volume II): More Collected Essays from the New York Times (2004). American writer Donald Westlake (1933-2008) best known for his crime fiction. Westlake was a prolific writer, having written more than 100 novels, several of which were adapted into films — Payback, Parker, Point Blank, The Hot Rock, The Outfit, and What’s the Worst that Could Happen? He won three Edgar Awards: one for God Save the Mark (best novel); “Too Many Crooks” (best short story); and The Grifters (Best Movie Screenplay).

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A Novelist Doesn’t Choose His Themes; He is Chosen By Them

atkins-bookshelf-literatureMario Vargas Llosa is the quintessential man of letters — an erudite and engaging writer, essayist, literary critic, journalist, and politician. As a Latin American writer, his literary contributions rank up there with the brilliant and influential work of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Octavio Paz. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; the Nobel jury recognized Llosa for “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s eloquent and transformative, Letters to a Young Poet, Llosa shares his insights drawn from his eventful life as a writer in a deeply reflective and thought-provoking little tome, titled Letters to a Young Novelist:

“Writing novels is the equivalent of what professional strippers do when they take off their clothes and exhibit their naked bodies on stage. The novelist performs the same acts in reverse. In constructing the novel, he goes through the motions of getting dressed, hiding the nudity in which he began under heavy, multicolored articles of clothing conjured up out of his imagination. The process is so complex and exacting that many times not even the author is able to identify in the finished product — that exuberant display of his ability to invent imaginary people and worlds — the images lurking in his memory, fixed there by life, which sparked his imagination, spurred him on, and induced him to produce his story.

As for themes, well, I believe the novelist feeds off himself, like the catoblepas, the mythical animal that appears to Saint Anthony in Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony [Flaubert’s description: “a black buffalo with the head of a hog, hanging close to the ground, joined to its body by a thin neck, long and loose as an emptied intestine. It wallows flat upon the ground, and its legs are smothered under the huge mane of stiff bristles that hide its face”] and that Borges later revisted in his book of Imaginary Beings. The catoblepas is an impossible creature that devours itself, beginning with its feet. Likewise, the novelist scavenges his own experience for raw material for stories — in a more abstract sense, of course. He does this not just in order to re-create characters, anecdotes, or landscapes from the stuff of certain memories but also to gather fuel from them for the willpower that must sustain him if he is to see the long, hard project through.

I’ll venture a little further in discussing the themes of fiction. The novelist doesn’t choice his themes; he is chosen by them. He writes on certain subjects because certain things have happened to him. In the choice of a theme, the writer’s freedom is relative, perhaps even nonexistent… My impression is that life… inflicts themes on a writer through certain experiences that impress themselves on his consciousness or subconscious and later compel him to shake himself free by turning them into stories.”

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For further reading: Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Varga Llosa (1997)


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