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Dee Embraces Writing as Discovery — 2014

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
A Thousand Pardons
by Jonathan Dee

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Dee Embraces Writing as Discovery
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Jonathan Dee

 

By Ellen Birkett Morris

March, 2014

Like most of us, writer Jonathan Dee is captivated by the ritual public apologies that follow scandals involving celebrities, sports stars and public officials.

 “It is as if public opinion is taking up the place where God used to be.”
DEE

 

 

 

“It is as if public opinion is taking up the place where God used to be,” said Dee.

Thus began the idea for his latest book, A Thousand Pardons, which explores public apologies against the backdrop of a disintegrating marriage that ends in scandal.

When Ben Armstead, partner in a prestigious law firm, gets caught up in a harassment suit and is sent to rehab and jail, his wife Helen is thrown into the working world. She gets a job at a public relations firm where she discovers she has a talent for counseling the guilty and developing convincing public apologies. Despite her skill with strangers, Helen is challenged to maintain a good relationship with her daughter Sara. Her personal and professional lives collide when Helen is called upon to help a childhood friend.

“Helen is an interloper in this world, less like a businesswoman than a priest. All she is armed with is her Catholic school upbringing. She really believes that there are no half-measures when it comes to contrition,” said Dee.

Often Dee’s books come from two different ideas that he eventually discovers are the same idea, in this case the idea of public apology and the story of a couple whose marriage ends “both gradually and all at once.”

The author of five previous novels, include the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Privileges, Dee said he was a “compulsive outliner” when writing his first few novels, which resulted in “over determined” narratives. He has grown to trust the idea of writing as discovery.

“When William Maxwell had an idea for a story or a novel, he would sit with his feet up and think about it. If he could figure out the ending before he started writing, then he wouldn’t write it,” said Dee.

“I see the value now of jumping in and writing more intuitively.”
—DEE

“I see the value now of jumping in and writing more intuitively. I’m starting sooner, writing before I feel ready to start. This means I write quite a bit that in the end I don’t use. There could have been another book made from the deleted scenes of The Privileges.”

He writes his first drafts on a legal pad with a pen. “You have to keep going; it is too easy to change sentences on the computer. Writing by hand helps keep you in the trance state you need to be in to create,” said Dee.

His greatest challenge with A Thousand Pardons was wanting the story to seem simple and fast moving in the reading and weighty and meaningful upon reflection, much like a parable. The book succeeds in being an engaging story that takes on some big ideas of our time.

“Some days are great and some are awful. When it is awful I quit writing and read.”
DEE

As for cultivating skills as a writer, Dee suggests embracing the “everydayness of it” by returning to your writing day in and day out. “Some days are great and some are awful. When it is awful I quit writing and read. But I have the ritual of going back to the work the same time every day.”

He suggests that apprentice writers have patience with their careers. “Slow down. Don’t send stuff out too soon. No one will ever ask you how long it took to write the book.” His own apprenticeship included working as an editor at The Paris Review. “You think of readers at these magazines as people of fantastic tastes, not some 22-year-old overworked idiot who is reading 150 stories a day. I shudder to think of the good stories I missed.”

While there Dee immersed himself in reading the review’s Writers at Work series. “I learned about a writer’s life and the idea that there was no right way to do it. All of those writers were crazy in different ways.”

He met his agent, Amanda Urban, through a colleague at the review. Dee said it is useful to think of your agent as “someone whose mindset about writing complements, not necessarily mirrors, your own.”

He finds great inspiration from reading and engaging in a mental dialogue with a book’s author. “There is nothing else that brings me that great pleasure. It makes up for life’s other disappointments.”

Dee is philosophical about rejection. “My second novel was rejected by 12 publishers in a row. But you have to expect rejection. This is the life we’ve chosen.” He suggests a writer not send something out if the rejection of the piece will affect their ability to go back and work on it.

He is currently in the early stages on working on a new book. “Right now it is a matter of faith, and hoping that out of a day’s work there are one or two things worth saving.”

About the Author

Jonathan Dee is the author of five previous novels, most recently The Privileges, which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and winner of the 2011 Prix Fitzgerald and the St. Francis College Literary Prize.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.