The conclusion of my interview with Dr. Harrison Solow.
BF: Regarding the writing itself, since yours is so musical, would you like to share a bit about process? How conscious are you are of the musical elements of your writing? During composition? During revision? Do you ever read your work aloud as you revise? If so, why?
HS: I’m honestly not aware of process, largely because I rarely write anything as a process. What I mean is that the process – the composition - germinates and develops in my head and it’s difficult to differentiate that from my usual thinking, which is fairly fanciful at times. Although I have trained myself – and been trained by others when young, to pay attention to what I see before me, it rarely has my full attention. What I am really paying attention to is not what is there – but what appears not to be. When I actually write these thoughts down, they are in almost final form and the writing takes very little time.
For example: Six months before my PhD dissertation was due, when I had a manuscript of about 400 pages, I threw it away. This is because I had attempted to do what is recommended by every academic with whom I’ve spoken and every piece of advice on the subject I’ve ever read – make notes, organize chapters, write for a certain number of hours or write a certain number of words or pages a day, methodically, steadily. But that isn’t the way I work and I shouldn’t have attempted this process. I adhered to it for about a year or so and it did produce copious material, but what I ended up with was exactly what that process indicates: an organized, methodical and, to me, a highly pedestrian, boring piece of work.
So I destroyed it – all physical copies were shredded and all digital copies deleted. My supervisor nearly passed out. But I honestly wasn’t worried. I had the information and the story in my head – and notes in my journals. And for the next two months, I didn’t write anything at all. I just thought and dreamed and remembered and ruminated. Then 16 weeks before it was due, I started to write this 400-page tome. When it was finished, I asked a fellow academic, not in my field, to look it over editorially and a former student to proofread my footnotes and bibliography to make sure that all my formatting was correct. While they were doing that, I re-read some of my children’s books – a little literary vacation – and then I went over the whole thing the week that it was due, made a few minor changes and handed it in a day before the due date.
Similarly, my first book was written in 6 weeks. I hadn’t written anything down for two years and my publisher was panicking. But again, this is just the way I work. The book became one of the two best selling publications in the press’s history and the thesis was honoured with a rare distinction in British universities “Accepted as Submitted: No Changes Required”. I was awarded the PhD on the day of the Viva (oral examinations) by the external examiners. So, I’ve concluded that I do best with my own methodology.
Consequently, no, I’m not really conscious of any elements of my writing, because I feel that I’m recording something that has already been written – not actually writing it. I rarely revise beyond proofreading or structural modifications because the entire work seems to be finished before I write it down. I don’t read it aloud to myself, though I “think it aloud” to myself, which is a different thing from thinking it or thinking about it. It’s similar to hearing it – like remembering a song without singing it aloud.
But sometimes, I read the portions of my work that I have transcribed from my mind onto paper to that date – at conferences or university colloquia or seminars – and occasionally at workshops that I’m conducting. I do, of course, give readings of my work after publication.
BF: Your description of Timothy Evans’s voice as “...flawless, haunting, and irrefutably magical” made me muse about the human voice itself. I imagine that scientific studies have been done on human voices—their complex mix of waveforms, timbres, and overtones, unique to each individual, and how the brain interprets them. But I’ve often wondered if our response to an exquisite voice like Evans’s is more complicated and elemental. As an organic instrument, the only purely organic instrument there is, the voice is capable of expressing what no other instrument can: the soul of the musician. You allude to as much when you say of the voice, “It has always come from hunger.” Can you talk more about this? Do you feel that a similar statement can be made about writing?
HS: I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about the specific origins of hunger in Timothy’s case. But I will say that as accurate as it is to say that artists give of themselves in the performance of their art (and often what they give goes to their art and not simply to the audience, but that is another discussion) it is as accurate to say that an artist is nourished by and in the performance of his art. By performance, I don’t mean public performance – but rather the undertaking, the enactment, the perfecting of the art.
Some writers say, at times rather dramatically, that they have to write – they have no choice. I don’t hear this from those friends of mine who are very famous writers, though perhaps I haven’t been listening – but I do hear it from others. But whether or not that is the case for others, it isn’t the case with Timothy and it isn’t the case with me. I have a hundred books in my head and I’m not troubled that they all haven’t been or won’t be written. Timothy has a thousand songs in his heart and he is equally untroubled. We both feel, and I once had a beautiful friend who felt the same, that the real art is not recording the visible but perceiving the invisible. It’s a hard thing to say because it sounds a little pompous, but as this is my creed, I have no other answer. Singing and writing – and other arts - are simply manifestations of a larger mandate – one much more difficult to nurture and to fulfill.
My elder son, who is a prominent designer, said to me the other day when we were talking about the way each of us sees the world, “You look at the world as a writer” and I was surprised by the rapidity with which I answered him, “No, no – not at all. I look at the world as a pilgrim and then, sometimes, I write about it.” I guess this means that I am a pilgrim-scribe. As I explained in the introduction to The Bendithion Chronicles, I am dedicated to, and on a quest for, the liminal, the invisible and the holy, which is best explained by this excerpt:
“And if illuminating this ephemeral and largely invisible panorama seems like an inconsequential or ignoble task, it might be well to consider this: millions of people dedicate their lives to making the invisible visible: archaeologists, astronomers, quantum/particle physicists, artists, priests, nano-technologists, physicians, nuns, microbiologists, filmmakers, rabbis, oceanographers, astronauts, psychiatrists and writers (and, depending on viewpoint, some people in other professions) - all in pursuit of truth, all on a pilgrimage to somewhere they haven’t been before. I just happen to be on the same pilgrimage.”
The hunger, the quest each of us keeps in his/her heart for our own purpose, then, is best fulfilled for some of us by the pursuit and not the chronicling of it – or the singing of it. If you gave Timothy an ultimatum either to live the life he leads in Wales with his animals, his emerald fields, his language, his culture, his friends – or his singing career, he would unhesitatingly choose the former. If I had a similar ultimatum, I’d do the same. Ironically, of course, that’s something to write about.
BF: I found myself nodding when I read: “...he is offering transport to another world.” One of the observations made about great art of any kind is that it transports. In Evans’s case, the voice and music are intricately bound. I’d really enjoy hearing your thoughts on this.
HS: Considering the fact that Timothy himself is transported when he sings, it isn’t surprising that his listeners are. We talked about this several times – and each time, he insists that he isn’t actually there when he sings. He says he “goes away” and that it is a little scary.
He sees himself as a conduit through which music flows in the same way that I see myself as a conduit through which words flow. If that means sometimes that others travel through us to other places, then that is a lovely thing. And of course I’m not talking about every instance of singing or writing. I write plenty of things that fall outside this realm. I can’t answer for Timothy, but I’ve seen and heard him sing in different states of being – some of which have nothing to do with the sheer magic that sometimes happens.
And so much depends on who’s listening, reading, or viewing and how synchronous they are with your song or book or any form of art. I move in a very small circle, but that circle moves through a great universe.
BF: Can you tell us about some of your other writing, that perhaps doesn't fall into this category?
HS: Yes - most of my professional writing, some of my nonfiction, all of my ghosted books (and some of my speeches) for celebrities, some (though not by any means all) of my academic writing, various articles. The kind of life I’ve led had enabled me to be far more versatile than I would have been without the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have, so I write in widely diverse genres and styles.
Felicity & Barbara Pym, my last published book (there’s another on the way) doesn’t fall into the kind of literature that we have been talking about, though it has its moments – but Mater Amabilis which centres around the invisible, does. Appropriateness to purpose is always the goal.
The brief bios on Red Room and academia.edu would probably answer your question best. They can be found here:
Speaking of the Red Room, I would encourage any of your readers who are writers and authors to explore this exceptional organization. It’s a cohesive writers colony on the web - a very worthy and highly interesting site. It’s a way to interact with both readers and fellow authors – to the extent that one wishes - and a great place to host a writer’s blog, which, as an author-member you already know.
BF: Thank you, Harrison. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave with us today?
Only a thank you to you, Barbara, for the invitation and for the fascinating questions. I’ve learned something in trying to answer them. And thanks to your readers for their interest in reading them.
American writer Harrison Solow has been honored with multiple awards for her literary fiction, nonfiction, cross-genre writing, poetry and professional writing, most notably winning a Pushcart Prize for Literature in 2008. Dr. Solow is one of the two best-selling University of California Press authors of all time (at time of publication), a Notable Alumna of Mills College where she earned an MFA, and holds the rare distinction of a British PhD in English (Letters) with a critical and creative dissertation “Accepted as Submitted: No Changes” from Trinity Saint David, 2011.
She lectures in English and American Literature, Creative, Nonfiction and Cross Genre Writing, Specific Authors, Science Fiction and American Culture, Professional Writing, Philosophy and Theology at a number of universities, colleges, arts and cultural institutions in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. A former faculty member at UC Berkeley, she accepted a lectureship at the University of Wales in 2004 and was appointed Writer in Residence in 2008. She returned to America in 2009. A professional writer and consultant of rare experience, her work spans Hollywood, Academia, Business, Law and Literature.
Dr. Solow is a strong proponent of the traditional Liberal Arts, the Fine Arts and the Utilitarian Arts as separate and equally respectable entities, an advocate for Wales and a patron of literary endeavours. She speaks several varieties of English, Intermediate Welsh and rusty French.
She is married to Herbert F. Solow, the former Head of MGM, Paramount and Desilu Studios in Hollywood and has two sons.
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